Carlos Giusti/AP

The True Scope of the Disaster in Puerto Rico

A new survey of the island’s residents finds a much higher death toll from Hurricane Maria than previously reported—putting it on par with one of the worst natural disasters in recent American history.

Just about nobody believes Puerto Rico’s official death toll for Hurricane Maria. Researchers and journalists alike generally accept that the island’s tally of 64 people killed by the storm last September is a massive undercount, so obviously inaccurate that the Puerto Rican government has agreed to review and revise its figures. But with Puerto Rico still in disarray—from the storm’s casualties, population changes from migration, and the absence of basic services—information on the complete human cost of the catastrophe is still woefully incomplete.

What little is known, however, portends a grim conclusion: that Hurricane Maria is one of the most significant and destructive natural disasters in recent American history.

A new study in The New England Journal of Medicine, conducted in part by researchers at Harvard University, sheds new light on what’s really happened on the island. The team found that there were over 4,600 deaths potentially attributable to the hurricane, a 70-fold increase over official estimates. The survey also measured high rates of migration among people displaced by the storm and, after it passed, long periods where residents faced a loss of basic services.

As I spent time reporting from Puerto Rico three weeks after Maria, two things became clear: The storm had a staggering impact on the island, and it was almost impossible to translate that impact to observers on the mainland. People are used to gauging the scale of far-off events by relying on official estimates of death tolls, dollar amounts of damages, and the like. But in the immediate chaos following the storm, the “official” story was clearly inadequate. Some residents just went missing. Some got swept away in floods. Entire branches of extended families went silent. Mudslides and floods essentially turned remote places in the island’s mountainous interior into islands in their own right. In my attempts to assess the human burden of the hurricane, I asked everyone I interviewed—over two dozen people—if they knew someone who’d disappeared, died, or had fled to the mainland. Each person told me “yes.”

Official counts are obviously more difficult to perform than my anecdotal one, and not just because of scale: Further complicating the picture are mismatched systems in hospitals and morgues that might double-count some victims or misidentify others, as well as tough decision-making over just what counts as a hurricane-related death. In its survey of over 3,200 Puerto Rican households, the team behind the new study tried to get around those difficulties by asking families directly about the deaths of loved ones.

As The New York Times explains, the respondents reported that “38 people living in their households had died between Sept. 20, when Hurricane Maria struck, and the end of 2017.” When extrapolated to the island’s population of 3 million people and compared with deaths from the previous year, the researchers found 4,645 so-called “excess” deaths over that roughly three-month period. The researchers believe even that number might be low because of various biases in their survey, including their inability to measure any single-person households where the person died.

Of the deaths linked by household members directly or indirectly to Hurricane Maria, the largest mortality category was people who died from interruption of necessary medical services—about one-third of the recorded deaths. The survey also found a significant degree of storm-related migration, with 3 percent of households seeing a member leave after the storm. Most of the migrants were young, with an average age of 25, and many were destined for the mainland United States. Additionally, many households reported major barriers to basic services like water, electricity, phone service, and medical care.

As the Times notes, owing to methodological constraints, there is a rather high margin of error to these estimates, with the low end of the range reaching down to 800 deaths and the high end reaching as many as 8,000. Two other analyses of estimated mortality following the hurricane found just over 1,000 deaths.

But while this survey isn’t the definitive count of exactly how many people were killed by Hurricane Maria, what it does show with clarity is that the storm was on par with other recent natural disasters that have shaken the American populace and still reverberate today. For example, the official death toll for Hurricane Katrina in 2005 was just over 1,800 people, and it also kicked off a mass migration of displaced residents. Immediately after that storm, New Orleans lost half its population, and it appears that somewhere north of 100,000 people from the city and its surrounding areas have permanently resettled in the years since. Katrina also fundamentally shaped public policy, sparking conversations on climate change, disaster risk management, environmental justice, racial equality, and class.

Hurricane Maria looks increasingly like Katrina in terms of its effects. At the lower end of the Harvard researchers’ death range, it could match Katrina’s toll, and on the higher end, it could eclipse it. If the true death count is closer to 8,000, the September storm would be the single most devastating natural disaster to hit the United States since the Galveston Hurricane in 1900.

Beyond raw death counts, the woes inflicted—and uncovered—by Maria are comparable to those revealed after Katrina. As I reported in October, many of the lasting effects of flooding, contamination, and ill health in Puerto Rico compounded along lines of race and class, just as they did after Katrina hit New Orleans. Maria has also shined a spotlight on the federal government’s relationship with its largest territory, further exacerbating one of the most consequential domestic migrations since the Dust Bowl and exposing the future difficulties of austerity on a debt-riddled island.

With another strong hurricane season expected to menace the Atlantic Ocean starting in three days, many residents of Puerto Rico still live under tarps instead of roofs. Electricity is still tenuous. And many residents still face barriers to health care left over from last season’s storm. As the effort to measure the fallout from Hurricane Maria continues, perhaps the most alarming implication of that work is that there’s potentially much more damage to come.

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.