Independent researchers from the George Washington University have estimated that Hurricane Maria caused 2,975 deaths in Puerto Rico in the six months following the storm.
The researchers’ findings had been long-awaited. Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossello commissioned the independent study in February, after months of public pressure over his administration’s failure to adequately count the number of hurricane dead. At the time, he said the research team would have the Puerto Rican government’s full cooperation, including access to all mortality data.
The new number represents a 22 percent increase over the number of deaths Puerto Rico would have expected had a hurricane not struck, researchers found. They also said those most at risk for death were poor people, and the elderly.
“The results of our epidemiological study suggest that, tragically, Hurricane Maria led to a large number of excess deaths throughout the island,” Carlos Santos-Burgoa, the study’s lead researcher, said in a statement. “We hope this report and its recommendations will help build the island’s resilience and pave the way toward a plan that will protect all sectors of society in times of natural disasters.”
Since December, the government’s official hurricane death toll has been stuck at 64, though the government has acknowledged that number was far too low and would be adjusted once the researchers had completed their study.
It was unclear whether the island’s government would adopt the researchers’ estimate as its official toll. A spokesman for Gov. Rossello did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
In addition to their new death count estimate, the researchers found that the Puerto Rican government did a poor job communicating with the public about the death count, and more broadly did not have an adequate disaster communications plan in place, which the researchers said contributed to public confusion.