Puerto Rico’s official study on Hurricane Maria deaths puts toll at 2,975

A shifting number.
A shifting number.
Image: AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa
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Despite an official count of just 64 deaths, Puerto Ricans have long insisted that hundreds died as a result of Hurricane Maria. Today, they got official confirmation.

A study commissioned by the island’s government found that 2,975 people died as a result of Hurricane Maria, which hit Puerto Rico last September. The report, which was released Tuesday, was conducted by the Milken Institute School of Public Health. Its authors arrived at the number by comparing death trends in past years to the period after the storm.

Update Aug. 28, 2pm EST: Puerto Rico governor Ricardo Roselló said during a press conference that he was adopting the 2,975 figure as the hurricane’s official death toll. Although his government had estimated 1,427 deaths based on its own statistical analysis, it had declined to revise the official death toll until the Milken Institute’s report had been released.

That kind of analysis has been carried out by others, including other researchers and the media, with varying results. However, all of the independent counts put the toll in the hundreds. Quartz and Puerto Rico’s Center for Investigative Journalism created their own tally based on an online survey of victims’ relatives.

The Milken Institute, which is part of George Washington University, also looked at why the government vastly undercounted deaths in the first place. Part of the reason was because the government had not trained doctors on how to register natural-disaster-related deaths before the hurricane, although it did issue guidelines on how to do it afterwards.

In general, the researchers found the government was ill-prepared: key agencies had outdated emergency communication plans, or no plans at all. Writing and updating those plans are among the study’s recommendations.