In a report to Congress on Thursday, the Puerto Rican government conceded that there were 1,427 more deaths “than normal” following the devastating aftermath of Hurricane Maria and Hurricane Irma.
Puerto Rican Gov. Ricardo Rossell commissioned a study by George Washington University to help determine the official number of deaths caused by the disastrous storms.
The death toll from Hurricane Maria, which has been subject to major scrutiny and debate, was stated to be 1,139. However, earlier this year, another study said the hurricane was likely responsible for more than 4,600 deaths a figure that was based on results of a door-to-door survey of 3,299 randomly selected homes across the island.
It’s difficult to say what the actual number of deaths are because factors are constantly changing. As with any major natural disaster, assessing the loss of life caused by Hurricane Maria is painstakingly difficult. For disaster-related deaths to be confirmed in Puerto Rico, the bodies must be transported to San Juan or a medical examiner must travel to the area to verify the death.
This process makes it extremely difficult to do because of the ongoing loss of lives caused by delays in treatment or chronic conditions that worsened in the aftermath of the storm. Many Puerto Ricans still don’t have access to clean water and electricity and people are still dying daily. How can those numbers be factored in, even though Hurricane Maria occurred almost a year ago and when does death due to the storm become inapplicable
“A lot is at stake with underreporting” the death toll, says Satchit Balsari, a lead investigator on the study and a research fellow at Harvard’s FXB Center for Health and Human Rights.
“At the very least, [an accurate number] means closure for the family of a victim.”
But it also affects funding and planning that can take into account where people died on the island, and why, helping first responders identify and prepare for areas most at risk in the future.
“The ramifications for future hurricanes are substantial,” Dr. Balsari said.