After a months-long review, researchers with George Washington University (GWU) determined that 2,795 people likely died in Puerto Rico because of Hurricane Maria.
The researchers, who were commissioned by Governor Ricardo Rosselló in February, arrived at this figure by looking at the excess mortality rate across the island between September 2017 and February 2018, controlling for various factors in the process.
They found that all socio-demographic groups faced higher mortality rates following the hurricane, with people in low development areas and those above 65 experiencing the sharpest increases.
"The results of our epidemiological study suggest that, tragically, Hurricane Maria led to a large number of excess deaths throughout the island," Carlos Santos-Burgoa, the study's lead researcher, said in a statement. "We hope this report and its recommendations will help build the island's resilience and pave the way toward a plan that will protect all sectors of society in times of natural disasters."
The island of Puerto Rico was so thoroughly devastated by Hurricane Maria — electricity wiped out, homes destroyed, and critical infrastructure damaged — that there have been discrepancies in the reported death toll because of a lack of access and preparedness.
“The inadequate preparedness and personnel training for crisis and emergency risk communication, combined with numerous barriers to accurate, timely information and factors that increased rumor generation, ultimately decreased the perceived transparency and credibility of the Government of Puerto Rico,” the GWU report reads.
Immediately after the hurricane, it was decided by federal agencies that 64 people had died from the event, which prompted President Donald Trump to congratulate the island for the supposedly low loss of life.
Then the New York Times conducted an analysis that put the death toll at 1,427, which the government of Puerto Rico has been using as the official toll pending the GWU research.
That death toll factored in people who died from causes beyond immediate trauma. For example, people died from sepsis in blacked-out hospitals, kidney failure when their home dialysis machines failed, diabetes when insulin became inaccessible, loss of oxygen when breathing machines broke, and much more.
“The hurricanes’ devastating effects on people’s health and safety cannot be overstated,” a government report stated. “Damage to critical infrastructure resulted in cascading failures of lifeline systems of energy, transportation, communications, and water supply and wastewater treatment.”
“Because the resources available for response were inadequate for the scale of the disaster, the failure of the lifeline systems meant that emergency services were severely compromised and residents lacked electricity, food, and water for a prolonged period,” the report continued. “And with roads impassable, residents had limited access to medical care."
This latest analysis by GWU expands the time frame to capture a broader picture of the damage and reaches a harrowing conclusion.
The 2,795 deaths attributed to the hurricane would make it the third-deadliest hurricane in recorded US history, and puts it ahead of Hurricane Katrina.
That’s an important reference point, as Trump pointedly said Puerto Rico should be happy Hurricane Maria wasn’t as bad as Katrina when he visited the island. Advocates argue that this perceived difference has led to a stalling of emergency relief funds from the federal government.
An investigation by Politico found that Trump consistently prioritized relief efforts for Houston following Hurricane Harvey over efforts in Puerto Rico post-Maria.
Governor Rosselló is trying to secure $139 billion in emergency funding from the federal government to repair the island’s infrastructure and better prepare it for the next natural disaster.
The new figures from GWU could prompt a reaction that’s more proportionate to the situation’s urgency.