SAN JUAN – The death toll from the hurricane that devastated the United States commonwealth of Puerto Rico last year remains unknown, but a new report indicates it is more than 20 times higher than the official tally of 64.
The island’s government has now recognized in a report that the number of deaths on the island in the four months after Hurricane Maria, which made landfall in Puerto Rico on Sept. 20, 2017, as a Category 4 storm and completely destroyed the island’s power grid, was 1,427 higher than the average for that same timeframe in the four previous years.
The figure was included in a report delivered this week to the US Congress following passage of the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018, whose section 21210 required Puerto Rico’s governor to present a recovery plan within 180 days.
But the secretary of Puerto Rico’s Department of Public Safety, Hector Pesquera, said after the 1,427 figure was reported in the media that the true number of deaths would be determined by a study that is being conducted by Washington DC-based George Washington University and is expected to be published in the coming weeks.
“That number – 1,427 – is not the official death toll. We always expected that the number would increase as more official studies were carried out,” he said.
A research letter released this month in the Journal of the American Medical Association said there were 459 additional deaths in Puerto Rico in September and 564 excess deaths in October.
It said “the number of (excess) deaths decreased in November, and by December had returned to a level within historical variation.”
In late May, a Harvard University study published in the New England Journal of Medicine estimated that the death toll from Hurricane Maria could be more than 4,600.