WASHINGTON – The death toll from Hurricane Maria, which ravaged Puerto Rico last year, could exceed 4,600, at least 70 times more than the 64 victims that the island’s government acknowledged, a study published on Tuesday in the New England Journal of Medicine says.
“Our results indicate that the official death count of 64 is a substantial underestimate of the true burden of mortality after Hurricane Maria,” the study says, which was carried out by researchers from Harvard University’s TH Chan School of Public Health in collaboration with scientists from Puerto Rico’s Carlos Albizu and Ponce universities.
The Category 4 storm battered the US commonwealth with winds of up to 250 kph (155 mph) and flooding rains.
The study is based on a survey of nearly 3,300 households across Puerto Rico, which asked people about loss of human lives and causes of death during the three months after the storm hit on Sept. 20.
By comparing the survey’s results with information from the same period in 2016, the researchers discovered that 4,645 “excess deaths” had taken place after Hurricane Maria hit, especially because of the interruption of medical care.
“These numbers will serve as an important independent comparison to official statistics from death-registry data, which are currently being re-evaluated, and underscore the inattention of the US government to the frail infrastructure of Puerto Rico,” the researchers wrote.
The study also notes that 83 percent of surveyed households were without electrical power during the time period that was analyzed.
If the study’s results were to be confirmed, it would mean that Maria caused more deaths than Hurricane Katrina, which ravaged New Orleans in 2005, leaving a death toll of more than 1,880.