Puerto Rico's Hurricane Maria death toll rises from 64 to 2,975

Aug 31, 2018, 02:21
Puerto Rico's Hurricane Maria death toll rises from 64 to 2,975

The report found that an estimated 2,975 deaths could be attributed directly or indirectly to Maria from the time it struck in September 2017 to mid-February of this year.

"I'm giving an order to update the official number of deaths to 2975", governor Ricardo Rossello said.

Almost 3,000 people died in Puerto Rico in the five months after Hurricane Maria slammed the island last September - a number that dwarfed the government's official death toll of 64.

Earlier this month, Puerto Rico said in a report to Congress there were 1,427 more deaths "than normal" in the four months after Hurricane Maria and Hurricane Irma, which churned on a path just north of the island two weeks before Maria hit.

The university researchers said the official count from the hurricane, which hit with huge force on 20 September as a series of tropical storms and hurricanes raged through the region, was low, in part, because doctors were not trained in how to certify deaths after a disaster.

Tuesday, Rossello said the study's estimate, for now, would become the official death toll from Maria - making the storm the second-deadliest in USA history, trailing only the Galveston, Texas, hurricane that killed more than 6,000 people in 1900.

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Researchers found that in the course of this period, poor people and the elderly died at far higher rates than in the years prior. "It's fairly striking that you have so many households without electricity for so long".

In addition to estimating the excess deaths, the team also sought to identify flaws in mortality surveillance and communications systems and to offer recommendations aimed at helping Puerto Rico - and the mainland USA - establish better methods for disaster preparedness and response.

A woman seeking shelter prays using rosary beads at the Juan Ponce de Leon Elementary School in Humacao, Puerto Rico, Sept. 19, 2017, before the arrival of the hurricane.

The study found that those in low-income areas, and elderly men, were at the greatest risk of dying.

"Others expressed reluctance to relate deaths to hurricanes due to concern about the subjectivity of this determination and about liability", the report said.

The research represents the most rigorous study of excess mortality due to the hurricane done to date. They also took into account an 8 per cent drop in Puerto Rico's population in the six months after the storm, when tens of thousands fled because of the damage.

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"The inadequate preparedness and personnel training for crisis and emergency risk communication, combined with numerous barriers to accurate, timely information and factors that increased rumor generation, ultimately decreased the perceived transparency and credibility of the Government of Puerto Rico", the report noted.

However, they did not share details of their methodology, saying those will be released if the study is published in a scientific journal. Maria was a Category 4 with 154-mph winds.

"Acrow has many years' experience in creating and restoring transportation lifelines under extreme circumstances, but we have never worked under conditions as challenging and severe as those left by Maria".

Researchers estimated the excess deaths with the help of mathematical modeling that compared post-hurricane deaths to the expected number based on historical patterns, and adjusted for age, sex and migration from the island.

Researchers said the actual number of excess deaths was estimated to be in the range of 2,658 to 3,290.

Rossello pledged to carry out the recommendations, though there are questions about Puerto Rico's ability to do so.

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