An independent study revealed that an estimated 2,975 people died in the months following Hurricane Maria as a result of the storm, with the elderly and poor among the most impacted in Puerto Rico.
The long-awaited research ordered by the U.S. territory’s government was released Tuesday and contradicted the official death toll of 64. The government’s previous estimate of how many could have perished was 1,400.
Researchers with The Milken Institute School of Public Health at George Washington University said the official death count from the Category 4 storm that hit on September 20 was low in part because physicians were not trained on how to certify deaths after a disaster.
Aurea Cruz, 66, who lives in the island of Vieques survived the worst hurricane to ever make landfall in Puerto Rico’s history
A Puerto Rican flag is mounted on debris of a damaged home in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in La Perla, a seaside slum in San Juan
The study noted that mortality in Puerto Rico had been slowly decreasing since 2010, but spiked after the hurricane.
There was a 22 percent overall increase in the number of deaths from September 2017 to February 2018 compared to previous years in the same time period, Lynn Goldman, dean of the institute, told reporters.
‘We are hopeful that the government will accept this as an official death toll,’ she said.
The office of Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossello did not immediately return a message for comment.
About 40 percent of Puerto Rico’s 78 municipalities saw a significantly higher number of deaths in the six months after the storm compared with the previous two years, researchers said.
These municipalities were located mostly in the island’s northeast and southwest regions.
Researchers found that the risk of death was 45 percent higher for those living in impoverished communities, and that men older than 65 saw a continuous elevated risk of death.
The shattered remains of a house in the town of Barranquitas after Hurricane Maria tore through it in September 2017
Hurricane Maria, the worst in Puerto Rico’s history, pummeled towns like San Juan, making them inhabitable for weeks and months
They also stated that physicians and others told them that Puerto Rico’s government did not notify them about federal guidelines on how to document deaths related to a major disaster.
‘Others expressed reluctance to relate deaths to hurricanes due to concern about the subjectivity of this determination and about liability,’ the report stated.
Researchers said they took into account an 8 percent drop in Puerto Rico’s population that occurred from September 2017 to mid-February 2018, when tens of thousands fled the damage left by the storm.