Puerto Rico’s Official Hurricane Death Toll Was 55. So Why Do Researchers Say It’s 500 Or More?

Manuel Dia repairs the roof of a restaurant in Carolina, Puerto Rico on Nov. 20. Manuel Dia repairs the roof of a restaurant in Carolina, Puerto Rico on Nov. 20. Defense Department

It’s widely believed the Puerto Rican government is underestimating the number of people who died as a consequence of Hurricane Maria, which barreled through the island Sept. 20.

The official count, 55 deaths, has been disproven by several (link in Spanish) media outlets. Their reporting shows the government’s list left out some who died days and weeks after the storm due to its indirect effects, like lack of power at hospitals and people stranded, unable to reach help. The true number of hurricane-related deaths is still unclear.

new study tries to answer that question. The analysis, which hasn’t yet been published in a peer-reviewed journal, uses historic data from 2010-2016, and found that, on average, 2,383 died each September under normal circumstances in Puerto Rico. Then, based on the official government death count for Sept. 2017, they estimate 2,987 Puerto Rico residents actually died that month. They found a similar trend for October: 2,428 on average, and 3,043 for Oct. 2017.

In other words, in September and October of 2017, Puerto Rico saw some 1,100 more deaths than in the same months in normal years. The researchers conclude that the true number of people who died due to Maria “may exceed the current official death toll by a factor of 10, or more.”

That’s without counting November, during which Puerto Ricans have continued to suffer the consequences of the storm. Power generation is still only at around half its capacity more than two months later.

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