Image: Police in Puerto Rico raise the coffin of a fellow officer who died while crossing a river in his car during Hurricane Maria. A new estimate drastically increases the storm’s death toll on the island. Photo by Ramon Espinoza/AP

Official government death toll stands at 64 in Puerto Rico, study estimates thousands more

By Bryan Ramos

W

hile the official government death toll stands at 64, authors of a Harvard study released this week say that’s a “substantial underestimate”, as the study estimated upwards of 4,600 people died in Hurricane Maria and its aftermath in Puerto Rico.

The study surveyed 3,299 randomly chosen households in Puerto Rico and found that from Sept. 20 to Dec. 31, 2017 at least 4,645 people died in connection to the storm.

“These numbers … underscore the inattention of the US government to the frail infrastructure of Puerto Rico,” authors of the article wrote in the New England Journal of Medicine.
Dr. Satchit Balsari, one of the researchers for the study, explained the importance of having an accurate death count not only because of its financial ramifications but also because it gives families a sense of closure. “It’s important to acknowledge what happened and why they lost their family members,” he told reporters in a conference call on Tuesday.
Previous estimates suggested Maria contributed to about 1,000 deaths.
“The difference is that we went out and we had boots on the ground and we did the interviews,” said Domingo Marqués, an associate professor of clinical psychology at Carlos Albizu University in Puerto Rico, who was among the report’s authors.
“Statistically, it’s like having interviewed the whole island,” he said.
Still, the exact death toll is likely to remain a mystery.
In a news conference on Tuesday, Hector Pesquera, head of Puerto Rico’s public safety department, said the government did not have reason to question the latest estimates, which come from researchers at Harvard University as well as Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, the University of Colorado and universities in Puerto Rico.
“The Government of Puerto Rico welcomes the newly released Harvard University survey and we look forward to analyzing it,” Carlos R. Mercader, executive director of the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration, said in a press release.
The Harvard study says the Puerto Rican and US governments did not provide adequate services, including electrical power and medical assistance, after the hurricane. It also notes that Puerto Rican officials have refused to make public basic mortality statistics.
The US Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which oversees disaster recovery, has said it encountered unique logistical challenges on the island after the storm that make comparisons between the response to Maria and other storms problematic.

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