Puerto Rican officials on Tuesday welcomed a study by Harvard University researchers that estimates nearly 5,000 people were killed on the island during and in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria last year — a death toll more than 70 times greater than the official count of 64.
Researchers from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health examined direct and indirect deaths caused by the 2017 hurricane and found that an additional 4,645 people died between when the hurricane made landfall in Puerto Rico on Sept. 20 and Dec. 31. The researchers believe the actual number to about 5,000.
“We have always expected the number to be higher than what was previously reported,” Carlos R. Mercader, executive director of the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration, said Tuesday in a statement.
The Harvard study was published Tuesday in the New England Journal of Medicine. Puerto Rican officials said they are waiting for their own research to be published by George Washington University on official death estimates.
“Both studies will help us better prepare for future natural disasters and prevent lives from being lost,” Mr. Mercader said in his statement.
The 2018 Atlantic hurricane season officially starts Friday, and powerful storms already have wrought destruction on communities on the East Coast.
The Harvard study’s estimate would make Hurricane Maria one of the deadliest natural disasters to strike the U.S.
The researchers surveyed a random selection of 3,299 households across Puerto Rico and asked respondents about displacement, infrastructure loss and causes of death. Using statistical analysis, they calculated the likely number of deaths that occurred and compared it with the rate of death in the year previous.
There were 62 percent more deaths between Sept. 20 and Dec. 31, 2017, than the same period in 2016.
Interruption of medical services was the greatest contributor to the high death count, the researchers wrote, with hospitals paralyzed from loss of electricity and damage sustained from the storm. In homes, people couldn’t refrigerate medications or power necessary medical devices.
Other independent analyses in the weeks following Maria also contradicted official government statistics, putting the number somewhere above 1,000 deaths.
Dr. Jorge Rosado, a licensed pediatrician in Puerto Rico, said that health workers on the island “we were all doubtful” of the official death toll. He was not involved in the Harvard study.
Since the storm, Dr. Rosado has helped provide medical care and services as part of Iniciativa De Paz, a nongovernmental organization that advocates for peace among communities on the island.
“One of the things that did not happen from the beginning was that the government did not acknowledge what a death associated to a catastrophic event means,” the pediatrician said.
Cause of death was not specified in the Harvard study. Dr. Rosado said an increase in murders and suicides on the island should be included in official estimates.
“We’ve had a lot of suicide attempts that came to the clinic or suicidal ideations and it’s still going on,” he said. “Everything that takes away from a person getting medical attention quickly after a disaster like this happens has to be accounted for as associated to the catastrophe.”
Dr. Lissette Gutierrez, an obstetrician-gynecologist in Ponce, Puerto Rico, said she wasn’t surprised by Harvard’s high death toll estimate, and hopes it brings more attention to a still dire situation.
“Of course those numbers are accurate to say they [deaths are around] 4,000. I don’t even know why they would say they’re lower,” said Dr. Gutierrez, a co-founder of Puerto Rico Rise Up, a group of health workers providing relief services. “For a while it was kind of like people forgot about Puerto Rico again. Even if it’s talking about a sad situation … it has to be brought up because it’s still happening and people are forgetting it.”
She said Puerto Rico Rise Up also is stockpiling goods and generators on the island in preparation for storms this year.
“Even if a hurricane doesn’t come, Puerto Rico still needs a lot,” Dr. Gutierrez said.
There is low confidence in the government being prepared for the next storm, Dr. Rosado said.
Independent groups like Iniciativa de Paz are continuing to train volunteers emergency care and are working to teach communities how they can organize in the event of another disaster.
“We’re going to a new season unsure what could happen, not even confident that we’re strong enough or organized enough,” he said. “But we’re working.”
© Copyright (c) 2018 News World Communications, Inc.