It turns out the rumors of a massive loss of life in Puerto Rico due to Hurricane Maria were true. A new study by Harvard University estimates that the official estimate does not count thousands of people who were killed during and after the storm, which hit the island on September 20 of last year.
The new study is not definitive, but it raises serious questions about the accuracy of the official numbers published by the government of Puerto Rice which puts the death toll at 64. Other organizations previously estimated that as many as 1,000 people died as a result of the storm, but the Harvard study puts the estimate much higher at 4,645.
The Harvard study used statistical analysis to arrive at its conclusion. Researchers visited 3,299 household on the island and asked residents several survey questions.
“Statistically, it's like having interviewed the whole island,” Domingo Marqués, one of the report’s authors told CNN.
The survey included questions about deaths in the household, whether related or not to the storm. The researchers then compared the survey data to 2016 mortality data from the island to arrive at an estimate of how many deaths were related to the storm.
The statistical analysis showed that between 793 to 8,498 people died during the storm or in the unsafe conditions that lingered for months afterward. The number cited in the report, 4,645, is the average between the two extremes. While the range of possible deaths is extremely large, even the low end of the range is more than 17 times larger than the official estimate. The exact death toll will never be known.
“The lack of electricity and basic services meant that people couldn't get the help they needed for a long time after the storm," Christy Delafield, a spokeswoman for relief agency Mercy Corps told USA Today. "The elderly, people with health problems and the very young were at particular risk.”
The government of Puerto Rico is not disputing the higher estimated death toll. In a press release, Carlos R. Mercader, executive director of the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration, said, “The Government of Puerto Rico welcomes the newly released Harvard University survey and we look forward to analyzing it.”
Hector Pesquera, head of Puerto Rico's public safety department, said at a press conference that the island’s government did not have a reason to question the Harvard statistics. A George Washington University study on the death toll commissioned by the government is still forthcoming.
The Harvard report also faulted both the federal government and the territorial governments for an inadequate response to the hurricane. A post-hurricane analysis of the FEMA response plan found that they agency did not anticipate the extent of damage and overestimated the ability of local and territorial agencies to respond.
White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders told USA Today, “We have been supportive of Gov. Rosello's efforts to ensure full accounting and transparency, and those who have suffered from this tragedy deserve nothing less.”
Sanders pointed out that the relief effort was the largest FEMA disaster response in history. At its height, more than 19,000 workers from 80 agencies were on the ground in Puerto Rico.
Bonnie Castillo, executive director of National Nurse United, said the higher estimate matched what volunteer nurses reported on the ground. “Our volunteer RNs came back to the U.S. and said again and again, ‘The people of Puerto Rico are dying. Do something!'” she said.
Castillo said that returning nurses told of people “left to die” and that the government relief effort had “failed its own American citizens.” Whether the failure was the result of incompetence or inability to imagine the devastation that a storm like Hurricane Maria could wreak, for the people of Puerto Rico, the result was the same.
Originally published on The Resurgent