George Washington University to lead study on Hurricane Maria deaths in Puerto Rico
SAN JUAN – Gov. Ricardo Rosselló announced Thursday that George Washington University’s (GW) Milken Institute School of Public Health will lead a study on the review of the protocol for counting deaths associated with Hurricane Maria’s passage through Puerto Rico up until February.
The university will collaborate with the Puerto Rico Demographic Registry, the Bureau of Forensic Sciences, as well as other institutions to provide resources and data for the review. Its researchers will be led by the director of the Global Health Policy Program of GW, doctor and epidemiologist Carlos Santos-Burgoa.
According to the governor, GW is seeking an alliance with the School of Public Health of the University of Puerto Rico (UPR) to integrate local researchers into the study.
Recommendations to improve processes ahead of future weather disasters will be provided.
The methodology will involve analyzing the data available related to mortality, such as death certificates, “to determine how many more deaths than usual could be related to the hurricane,” according to a release issued by the governor’s office, La Fortaleza.
There will also be an examination of the implementation of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines to identify mortality amid a disaster declaration and in the aftermath of the disaster; as well as a study of the implementation of communication protocols before, during and after a disaster.
“It is our interest that experts can identify as accurately as possible the deaths directly and indirectly associated with the hurricane to improve protocols for future natural disasters,” Rosselló says in the release. “We are confident that…this study may serve as a model for other jurisdictions of the nation and the world exposed to emergency situations like those that Puerto Rico faced after the passage of Hurricane Maria.”
“It is with great responsibility that we take on this independent review as we know that Hurricane Maria has taken a terrible toll on the Puerto Rican people. Our hope is that the results of this analysis not only inform and speed the ongoing recovery, but also begin to lay the groundwork for preventing deaths as much as possible in future disasters in Puerto Rico and the nation,” the dean of the Milken Institute, Dr. Lynn Goldma, added.
After Hurricane Maria passed through Puerto Rico in September, decimating infrastructure and leaving the island’s 3.4 million residents without power, Rosselló’s administration pegged the death toll at 64.
The governor faced criticism from funeral directors, families and media outlets who reported dozens – or in some cases hundreds – of deaths that were not counted as being caused by the storm.
In December, Rosselló said he would launch an internal probe into the death toll, to be led by his public safety director, Héctor Pesquera.
It was unclear on Thursday why Rosselló decided to switch gears and hand the investigation off to independent experts. A spokesman for the governor had no immediate comment on that decision.
An initial report is slated to come out in a month, with a more detailed report likely to take about a year.
Maria, Puerto Rico‘s worst natural disaster in nine decades, came at a time when the island was already trudging through an unprecedented economic crisis. The island declared a form of bankruptcy last May, shouldering some $120 billion in combined bond and pension debt.
–Additional reporting by Reuters’ Nick Brown