WASHINGTON — The governor of Puerto Rico has accepted the findings of a commissioned study that found the death toll from Hurricane Maria last year was more than 46 times the official government tally.
Researchers at the George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health (GW Milken Institute SPH) estimated in a new report that there were 2,975 deaths attributed to the hurricane from September 2017 through February.
Comparatively, the official death toll in 2005’s Hurricane Katrina is 1,833.
The independent study was requested by Gov. Ricardo Rosselló after unofficial investigations into Maria’s devastation found the death toll to be much higher than 64, the official government number.
Today, Rosselló said at a news conference that the government accepted the GWU number as an updated death toll, “keeping in mind that it’s still an estimate.”
“The number of excess deaths is still very big and now, as a society, we need to come together and look forward to the future,” said Rosselló.
A Harvard study published in May in the New England Journal of Medicine estimated the storm’s death toll at 4,645, and said that figure is still “likely to be conservative.”
The new report, though, takes into account an 8 percent drop in the U.S. territory’s population after the storm as thousands of survivors left quickly for the mainland.
“The results of our epidemiological study suggest that, tragically, Hurricane Maria led to a large number of excess deaths throughout the island. Certain groups – those in lower income areas and the elderly – faced the highest risk,” said Carlos Santos-Burgoa, MD, MPH, PhD, the principal investigator of the project and a professor of global health at GW Milken Institute SPH. “We hope this report and its recommendations will help build the island’s resilience and pave the way toward a plan that will protect all sectors of society in times of natural disasters.”
The report found that “lack of communication, well established guidelines and lack of training for physicians on how to certify deaths in disasters, resulted in a limited number of deaths being identified as hurricane related.”
San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz, who tangled with President Trump over hurricane response after the storm, tweeted, “These deaths due partly to negligence. For you can kill people with a gun or you can kill them with neglect. The second happened in PR.”
“The # of deaths 2,975 reinforces the pain inflicted on the people of PR and the violation of our human rights. THEY WILL NOT BE FORGOTTEN,” she added. I am sure the small minded will now compare studies and concentrate on the difference in #s. Remember, no matter the # thousands died.”
Last October, Trump visited Puerto Rico. “Every death is a horror. But if you look at a real catastrophe like Katrina, and you look at the tremendous hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of people that died, and you look at what happened here with, really, a storm that was just totally overpowering — nobody has ever seen anything like this,” he said. “What is your death count, as of this moment — 17?”
White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said today that the federal government is “supportive of Governor Rossello’s efforts to ensure a full accountability and transparency of fatalities resulting from last year’s hurricanes.”
Sanders said Trump “remains proud” of the hurricane response and said the government is “focused on Puerto Rico’s recovery and preparedness for the current hurricane season.”