Advertisement

A year later, Puerto Rico admits Hurricane Maria death toll 20 times higher than original count

Since September 27, the government had listed 64 as the official number.

An aerial view of Juana Matos neighborhood six months after Hurricane Maria in Catano, Puerto Rico, on March 18, 2018.
CREDIT: RICARDO ARDUENGO/AFP/Getty Images
An aerial view of Juana Matos neighborhood six months after Hurricane Maria in Catano, Puerto Rico, on March 18, 2018. CREDIT: RICARDO ARDUENGO/AFP/Getty Images

Puerto Rico’s government has acknowledged that the death toll from Hurricane Maria was likely more than 20 times higher than the statistic long given by officials. The admission comes almost a year after the storm devastated the island in September 2017.

A report posted online by Puerto Rico’s government places the death toll from Maria at upwards of 1,427 people. That reflects a giant leap from the death count of just 64 that officials have relied on since Maria struck Puerto Rico on September 20, when it initially killed a dozen people and left much of the island without access to water or electricity.

Published Thursday, the report serves as a request for $139 billion in recovery funds from Congress. Entitled “Transformation and Innovation in the Wake of Devastation,” the document spans more than 400 pages and details the island’s challenges and the need for assistance in recovery aid as its residents work to rebuild Puerto Rico.

It also quietly notes a dramatic difference in the acknowledged death toll following Maria, after closely inspecting deaths during the four month period following the storm in relation to deaths during the same time period in past years. 

“Although the official death count from the Puerto Rico Department of Public Safety was initially 64, the toll appears to be much higher,” the report admits.

But the government emphasized that the number, while “a realistic estimate,” is far from a definitive statistic.

“We don’t want to say it out loud or publicize it as an official number. The official number will come, and it could be close. But until we see the study, and have the accuracy, we won’t be able to recognize the number as official,” said Pedro Cerame, a government spokesperson, referencing a study commissioned by Gov. Ricardo Rosselló from George Washington University’s school of public health.

Advertisement

That study’s findings are expected some time this month. In the meantime, Puerto Rico’s numbers are in keeping with what other reports have acknowledged for months.

A New York Times investigation published in December found that the death toll was likely around 1,052 based on data from the Demographic Registry of Puerto Rico. Island internal records have also found that at least 1,400 more people died in the period following Maria than in previous years. And a study published last week by the Journal of the American Medical Association similarly estimated that 1,139 excess deaths occurred in Puerto Rico following Maria.

Other studies have provided more outlying data. A Harvard report in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) published in May found that the death toll could be closer to 4,645 and as high as 5,740. Those numbers, while by far the highest estimated, alarmed lawmakers and led several House Democrats to call for an investigation into the death toll at the time.

Accountability and transparency regarding Puerto Rico’s devastation following the hurricane has been slow-moving. Island residents spent the time immediately following the hurricane without potable water or power, in addition to limited access to hospitals and schools. As of August 2018, much of the island is still struggling to recover and tens of thousands of people are still living with blue tarps in place of roofs.

Advertisement

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) admitted in an internal report circulated in July that the U.S. government had not properly prepared for Maria and that Puerto Rico suffered as a result. The White House, by contrast, has largely touted the government’s response to the crisis. President Trump notably boasted in the time following the hurricane that the death toll was seemingly far lower than other historic natural disasters, including Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans.