Experts: Hurricane Maria’s Official Death Toll Is Off By 1,000

Sailors aboard USNS Comfort treat patients in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria.U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Stephane Belcher

The official count stands at 64 lives lost due to Hurricane Maria, but a growing number of people think it is far more.

The official government count of deaths attributable to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico stands at 64, but a growing chorus of voices wants the world to know the actual number is much higher.

One of those voices is Alexis R. Santos-Lozada, Assistant Teaching Professor in Sociology and Director of Applied Demography at Pennsylvania State University.

I was part of the team of demographers that developed the first independent estimates of excess deaths, with the objective of informing the public. Like the estimates published by those media outlets, our numbers contrasted significantly with the official figure. The most shocking results from our study suggest that deaths in September and October were 25 percent above the historical patterns – with about 1,085 added deaths following the hurricane.

Governor Rico Ricardo Rosselló has called for a review of the causes of death for people who died following the hurricane, but Santos-Lozada does not believe this will produce accurate results.

As of today, the government is requiring families to visit the Department of Public Safety and to report if a death was related to Hurricane Maria. But merely revising the causes of death is not enough to determine whether that death was indirectly related to Hurricane Maria. Those in charge of the death count review will need to interview families and ask them about the conditions surrounding the tragedy.

Why is an accurate death count so important? Santos-Lozada says an accurate death count could:

  • be used to inform policies
  • supplement requests for aid in the national and international context
  • inform local governments as they prepare for future natural disasters that may impact Puerto Rico

Finally, minimized figures could weaken efforts to provide relief to communities affected by the hurricane at the local and international level. Given that Puerto Rico does not hold political power in Congress, and that the only representative does not vote, it’s crucial to convey the reality to all elected officials, so that their votes align with the necessities of those who are still in Puerto Rico.