Puerto Rico admits Hurricane Maria killed hundreds—but won’t make it official

The lost.
The lost.
Image: Reuters/Alvin Baez
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The Puerto Rican government has been standing by its Hurricane Maria death toll of 64—except when it’s asking for money.

In a draft report to Congress (pdf) outlining the US territory’s recovery plan—and the billions of federal dollars it needs to achieve it—it said the number of deaths has been unofficially revised to 1,427. The official toll will stay at 64 until a study into María’s deaths is completed, according to the draft, which was released today (Aug. 9). Release of the results of the study—performed by George Washington University and scheduled for May—has been delayed.

“We owe it to the people of Puerto Rico to have a precise number, along with the data we need to make better preparations for future disaster situations,” said Héctor Pesquera, the island’s Public Safety secretary, in a statement.

There have been several independent attempts to count Maria’s victims. All have turned up many more fatalities than the government’s 64, including a tally by Quartz and Puerto Rico’s Center for Investigative Journalism based on an online survey of victims’ relatives. The government’s own 1,427 estimate is based on the difference between the number of deaths recorded in the months after the hurricane and the same period in previous years.

Disaster death statistics tend to be fuzzy. Tracking death after a disaster is complicated by the chaos that follows the event, experts say. And there are also no global standards of how to tally victims. That leaves plenty of room for interpretation—and manipulation.

Officials in rich areas tend to undercount deaths, to present their disaster response in a better light, as John Mutter, a Columbia University professor who has studied death statistics, told Quartz. Meanwhile, poor places tend to over-count, to generate more sympathy from aid donors.

It looks like Puerto Rico officials wanted to have it both ways.