/ 31 May 2018

Hurricane Maria: Death toll 70 times more than estimated

A house destroyed during Hurricane Maria in September 2017 is seen in Utuado
A house destroyed during Hurricane Maria in September 2017 is seen in Utuado

A new study conducted by the New England Journal of Medicine has revealed that Hurricane Maria led to 4 645 deaths in Puerto Rico, dwarfing previous estimates.

The storm hit the coast of Puerto Rico on September 20 2017 causing extensive damage to infrastructure. With wind speeds reaching up to 250 kilometres per hour, the hurricane became the costliest and one of the deadliest hurricanes to hit Puerto Rico.

In December 2017, it was originally reported that the category 4 hurricane caused 64 deaths, 70 times less than new estimates. According to the US National Hurricane Center, Hurricane Maria also caused $90-billion worth of damage.

AP reported that the aftermath of the storm left 3.3-million people without power, including those needing medical treatment in hospitals. According to the study, one-third of the total deaths were related to “delayed or interrupted healthcare”. The total mortality rate likely exceeded 14.3 deaths per 1000 people — a 62% increase in deaths from Autumn 2016 to Autumn 2017.

But the estimated death toll might be inaccurate, CNN reported. According to expert interviews, it is unclear whether or not the hurricane was solely responsible for certain deaths, but it is estimated that Maria led to the deaths of between 793 and 8 498 people.

On Tuesday, executive director of the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration Carlos R. Mercader wrote that the government of Puerto Rico “welcomes the study” and “looks forward to analysing it”.

We welcome @Harvard‘s mortality survey. Along with @GWtweets‘ thorough study on the number of fatalities caused by Hurricane Maria – which will be released shortly – it will help us prevent the loss of life in future natural disasters. pic.twitter.com/Li6UTJeI07

— PRFAA (@PRFAA) May 29, 2018

The US received backlash from national and international organisations including the United Nations for not adequately supporting resources to the commonwealth in the aftermath of the hurricane.

On October 30 2017, the United Nations Human Rights Committee released a statement condemning the US. In the statement, experts argued that the island did not have “an effective emergency response”, adding that the US government had an obligation to “remove regulatory and financial barriers to reconstruction and recovery”.

San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz wrote in October that he was disappointed with the government’s lack of response and urged the US government to help rebuild Puerto Rico, writing, “HELP US. WITHOUT ROBUST and CONSISTENT HELP WE WILL DIE.”

According to the study, the death toll is underestimated. The report has suggested that in order for the US to mobilise an “appropriate response operation” and “account for the fate of those affected,” the country should “review how disaster-related deaths will be counted”.