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Hurricane Maria may have killed more than 4,600 in Puerto Rico, study says

By Amanda Schmidt, AccuWeather staff writer
June 01, 2018, 7:01:39 AM EDT

Hurricane Maria devastated United States territory Puerto Rico in September 2017. The storm wreaked havoc throughout the island, cutting water and power services, severely damaging infrastructure and causing mass causalities throughout the island.

In early December, the official death toll in Puerto Rico remained at 64. However, numerous independent investigations, conducted by news sources and other groups, concluded that the death toll related to Maria was in between 400 and 1,000, with some estimating it to be over 1,000.

However, a new study conducted by scientists from Harvard's T.H. Chan School of Public Health, concluded that between Sept. 20 and Dec. 31, 2017, there were 4,645 "excess deaths." The study dismisses the official death toll of 64 as "a substantial underestimate."

Excess deaths are deaths that would not have occurred if the island hadn't been struck by the devastating storm.

The estimate isn't a precise figure. The researchers calculate there's a 95 percent likelihood the death toll was somewhere between about 800 and 8,500 people. The researchers say 5,000 is a likely figure.

The findings were published on Tuesday, May 29, in the New England Journal of Medicine.

hurricane maria death toll

In this Sept. 26, 2017 file photo, trees felled by Hurricane maria rest on tombs at a cemetery in Lares, Puerto Rico. The storm thrust the island's territorial status into the international spotlight and revived sharp debate about its political future as the island of 3.4 million people attempts to recover from flooding, landslides and power and water outages. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa, File)

“The full extent of the human and economic impact of Hurricane Maria on Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands is unimaginable and is not even fully realized yet,” said Dr. Joel N. Myers, Founder, President and Chairman of AccuWeather, shortly after Maria struck Puerto Rico.

The researchers attempted a new strategy to determine the death toll from the storm.

Unlike previous investigations, the researchers didn't attempt to count dead bodies in the wake of the powerful storm. Instead, they surveyed randomly chosen households and asked the occupants about their experiences.

The researchers conducted a community-based survey of a representative stratified random sample of 3,299 households, of an estimated 1,135,507 total households, across Puerto Rico in early 2018.

“We compared our survey results with official vital-statistics data for 2016 and calculated excess deaths in Puerto Rico after the hurricane and through Dec. 31, 2017,” the study reads.

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“This household-based survey suggests that the number of excess deaths related to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico is more than 70 times the official estimate,” the study reads.

Hurricane Maria Death Toll

Police officers carry the coffin of their colleague Luis Angel Gonzalez Lorenzo, killed during the passage of Hurricane Maria when he tried to cross a river by car, during his funeral at the cemetery in Aguada, Puerto Rico, Friday, Sept. 29, 2017. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)

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