WASHINGTON – At least 2,975 people died between September 2017 and February 2018 in Puerto Rico as a consequence of Hurricane Maria, according to an independent study by George Washington University (GWU) commissioned by the Puerto Rican government and published on Tuesday.
The investigators found “gaps in the death certification and public communication processes,” according to the report, and made recommendations to help Puerto Rico prepare for future storms.
In early August, the San Juan government acknowledged that during the four months after the storm 1,427 people over and above the number that normally would have passed away during that time had died, compared to the 64 victims that had been officially reported at first.
“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 Dr. Carlos Santos-Burgoa, the main investigator for the project and a professor of global health at GW Milken Institute SPH.
The report ascribed the low number of deaths initially acknowledged by the authorities to the “lack of communication, well established guidelines and lack of training for physicians on how to certify deaths in disasters.”
In addition, the study by GWU’s Milken Institute School of Public Health, the official report commissioned by island authorities and prepared in collaboration with the University of Puerto Rico, said that “the risk of dying over this period was the highest (60 percent higher than expected) for people living in the poorest municipalities.”
The report went on to note that “the elevated risk persisted beyond February 2018.”
The figure in this study is along the lines of two studies previously released by US academic institutions: one by Harvard in May that put the death toll at 4,645 and another in early August by Pennsylvania State University, which said that 1,130 people had died as a result of the storm.
Maria, which left a large part of the US commonwealth without electricity for months, caused economic losses of $90 billion, making it the third most costly hurricane to hit the US since 1900, after Harvey, which affected southern Texas in 2017 and Katrina.