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Maria death toll estimated at nearly 3,000, study finds

By Ashley Williams, AccuWeather staff writer
August 29, 2018, 5:09:16 AM EDT

In an independent report, researchers at the George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health (GW Milken Institute SPH) have estimated that there were 2,975 excess deaths in Puerto Rico as a result of Hurricane Maria’s devastating impacts.

The new report’s findings analyzed death certificates and other mortality data for six months from September 2017 and February 2018. The new death toll is 22 percent greater than the number of deaths that would’ve been expected during that period in a year without the deadly hurricane, according to the report.

Soon after the powerful Category 4 storm pummeled Puerto Rico last year, the United States territory’s government determined that 64 people had died.

However, unofficial reports and independent studies, including an analysis conducted by the New York Times in December 2017, suggested that the official death toll likely exceeded the number released by Puerto Rico’s government.

Puerto Rico Hurricane Maria anniversary

An Aug. 2, 2018, photo from Yabucoa, Puerto Rico, shows remaining devastation where Hurricane Maria’s eye passed through in September 2017. (AccuWeather Photo/Karuska Matos-Horta)

Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló ordered a recount of the official death toll in light of mounting evidence that the low figure was a "gross misrepresentation” of the fatalities that had occurred, Vox reported.

To obtain a more accurate and rigorous assessment of the number of people on the island that perished during and following Maria, Rosselló commissioned the recent independent study from GW Milken Institute SPH last December.

"The results of our epidemiological study suggest that, tragically, Hurricane Maria led to a large number of excess deaths throughout the island,” said Carlos Santos-Burgoa, M.D., MPH, Ph.D., the project’s principal investigator and a professor of global health at GW Milken Institute SPH, adding in a press release that lower-income citizens and the elderly faced the highest risk.

The study showed that the risk of death during the period from September 2017 to February 2018 was greatest – 60 percent higher than expected – for those living in poorer communities, and that the elevated risk persisted beyond February.

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The report also found that older male Puerto Ricans had a “risk of death that was 35 percent higher than expected” during that five-month period. An elevated risk of death for this group also continued past the study observation period.

“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,” Santos-Burgoa said.

In early August, the Puerto Rican government stated in an online report that they acknowledged the deaths of more than 1,400 people as a result of Maria.

Maria fatalities - AP

Nerybelle Perez poses with a portrait of her father, World War II veteran Efrain Perez, who died inside an ambulance after being turned away from the largest public hospital when it had no electricity or water, days after Hurricane Maria passed, in Guaynabo, Puerto Rico, Thursday, June 7, 2018. (AP Photo/Carlos Giusti)

AccuWeather predicted shortly after Maria’s impact that the Puerto Rico death toll would become much higher than initial official number provided by the government.

The latest report, which offered recommendations for Puerto Rico and the mainland U.S. to establish better disaster preparedness and response methods, also identified flaws in mortality surveillance and communications systems.

It showed that the biggest contributors to the incorrect and low number of initially reported deaths included “lack of communication, well-established guidelines and lack of training for physicians on how to certify deaths in disasters.”

"The lessons learned from this report and subsequent studies will help not just Puerto Rico, but other regions in the U.S. and around the world that face the ongoing threat of hurricanes and other natural disasters," said report co-author Lynn R. Goldman, M.D., M.S., MPH, Michael and Lori Milken Dean of the GW Milken Institute SPH. "If enacted, the recommendations of this report could help save lives in Puerto Rico and beyond."

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