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Harvard survey: Some 4,600 may have died in Puerto Rico in aftermath of Hurricane Maria

By on May 29, 2018

SAN JUAN – The number of people who died in Puerto Rico as a result of Hurricane Maria was at least 70 times higher than the official death toll of 64, according to a study published Tuesday in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Researchers from Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health worked with graduate students at the Carlos Albizu University and Ponce Health Sciences University in Puerto Rico, and others in Colorado and Boston, to conduct a survey of 3,299 randomly selected households in Puerto Rico, or about 9,522 people, according to stateside media reports.

They asked about causes of death between Sept. 20, when Maria made landfall, and Dec. 31.

Comparing those results with previous years’ death records, they calculated that 4,645 more people died in the final months of 2017, compared with the same period the year before, or a 62% increase in the mortality rate after the historic hurricane. The number comes a 793 to 8,498range, with a 95 percent confidence interval, meaning the actual figure could fall anywhere between that range.

The study estimates that 5,740 people died as a result of the storm, rather than the 64 people counted by the government.

Preliminary report on Hurricane Maria deaths in Puerto Rico vanishes

The researchers adjusted their survey to count people who lived alone and died as a result of the storm to come up with the figure.

“These numbers will serve as an important independent comparison to official statistics from death-registry data, which are currently being re-evaluated, and underscore the inattention of the U.S. government to the frail infrastructure of Puerto Rico,” the researchers wrote, according to Buzzfeed.

“The Government of Puerto Rico welcomes the newly released Harvard University survey and we look forward to analyzing it. As the world knows, the magnitude of this tragic disaster caused by Hurricane Maria resulted in many fatalities.  We have always expected the number to be higher than what was previously reported.  That is why we commissioned The George Washington University (GWU) to carry out a thorough study on the number of fatalities caused by Hurricane Maria which will be released soon. Both studies will help us better prepare for future natural disasters and prevent lives from being lost,” Carlos Mercader, the executive director of the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration, said in a statement Tuesday.

In addition to a significantly higher death toll, the study showed that the average household went approximately 41 days without cell phone service, 68 days without water, and 84 days without electricity following the storm. More than 30% of surveyed households reported interruptions to medical care, with trouble accessing medications and powering respiratory equipment being the most frequently cited challenges.

Founded in 1913 as the Harvard-MIT School of Health Officers, Harvard’s Chan School of Public Health is considered the oldest professional training program in public health in the United States. It has more than 400 faculty members for over 1,000 full-time students.


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