Following a natural disaster, an accurate death toll is critical to public health and safety as it is a key figure in how disaster teams respond, how much aid is given, and how infrastructure is rebuilt in anticipation of future events as a way to lessen the risk to the community. According to new findings, the official death count after Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico is a vast underestimate, with thousands more dead due to lack of critical health care after the storm.
As it stands, the official death count of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico is 64. A careful new study has challenged this death toll by assessing the full scope of the disaster upon the island, both immediately after and in the few months after the storm. Published in the New England Journal of Medicine, the study concluded that the hurricane-related death count in Puerto Rico is considerably higher: the number of lives taken by the storm is closer to 4,600. This figure is more than 70 times the count that has been reported and accepted by government officials.
Researchers assessed post-hurricane mortality data in the three months following the event and compared this mortality rate to the same period of the previous year as a way to calculate how many deaths were in excess due to the natural disaster. They also surveyed nearly 3,300 households across the island to corroborate their calculation. Based on the respondents’ reports, the hurricane-related death toll may even be closer to 5,600.
The gratuitous discrepancy in death toll comes down to how deaths are reported on death certificates. Most of the deaths related to the storm were not attributable to incidents like flying debris or injury, so they were not counted as hurricane-related fatalities. A more measured assessment of a post-disaster death toll ought to consider that the mortal consequences of the event can reach far beyond the disaster itself.
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