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Official Maria Death Toll Is 64. New Study Suggests 4,645

Harvard researchers say government figure for Puerto Rico is 'substantial underestimate'
By John Johnson,  Newser Staff
Posted May 29, 2018 11:00 AM CDT
This Sept. 26, 2017, file photo, shows the post-hurricane scene in Yabucoa, Puerto Rico.   (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert, File)

(Newser) – The official government death toll in Puerto Rico from devastating Hurricane Maria stands at 64. A new assessment led by Harvard researchers puts the figure closer to 5,000, reports NPR. More specifically, the researchers calculate that Puerto Rico had 4,645 "excess deaths" between Sept. 20, 2017, and Dec. 31, they write in the New England Journal of Medicine. How they got the figure: Researchers surveyed 3,299 homes in January and February and turned up 38 deaths in the time period after the hurricane, then extrapolated the figure to the island's population of 3.4 million. They concluded with a 95% certainty that the death toll attributable to the hurricane is between 800 and 8,500, with the figure of 4,645 a likely estimate. They also found that when comparing the number of deaths to 2016, the island's mortality rate increased 62% in the three months following the storm.

"Our results indicate that the official death count of 64 is a substantial underestimate of the true burden of mortality after Hurricane Maria," the authors write. The toll of 64 mostly counts people killed directly by rising water or wind, and the Washington Post provides an example of a death that went uncounted. Ivette Leon, 54, died at home in November, less than a day after being released from the hospital. As her condition deteriorated, it took family members 20 minutes to get cell reception to summon help, and then nonworking traffic lights delayed the arrival of an ambulance. The new study suggests there are thousands more like her. "That is an astonishing undercount," a Columbia professor who wasn't involved with the study tells BuzzFeed News. "Something has gone terribly wrong here if they have a 70-times-higher death rate." (Read more Hurricane Maria stories.)

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