Scientific American has some unpleasant statistics emerging from a study of how many people have really died in Puerto Rico in the wake of last year’s second massive hurricane:
Are mortality figures for disasters fueled by climate change being underreported?
That question gained new relevance yesterday as research published in the New England Journal of Medicine indicated that 4,645 people died as a result of 2017’s Hurricane Maria.
That’s 72 times more fatalities than were officially reported by the government after Maria swept across Puerto Rico last Sept. 20, flattening homes; wiping out electrical service; and displacing tens of thousands of U.S. residents who had limited access to food, water and other basic necessities.
Yet in spite of the immense scale of the disaster, official government estimates placed Maria’s mortality figure at just 64 individuals as of late 2017.
That figure, according to researchers from Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, is “a substantial underestimate of the true burden of mortality after Hurricane Maria.”
If findings are accurate, Maria would be the second-deadliest U.S. hurricane in modern U.S. history, following the 1900 Galveston, Texas, storm that killed an estimated 8,000 people.
[S]cholars surveyed 3,299 randomly chosen households across Puerto Rico to produce an independent estimate of all causes of mortality in the months after the hurricane.
“Respondents were asked about displacement, infrastructure loss, and causes of death,” the authors said. Excess deaths were then calculated by comparing post-Maria deaths with the official mortality rate for the same period during the previous year.
Analysis of the survey data showed a mortality rate of 14.3 deaths per 1,000 people from the period of Sept. 20 to Dec. 31, 2017, yielding a total number of excess deaths at 4,645 people with a confidence interval of 95 percent.
According to survey findings, interruption of medical care was the primary cause of sustained high mortality rates in the months after Maria, a phenomenon also observed after Hurricanes Katrina, Harvey and Irma, as well as Superstorm Sandy in 2012.