Puerto Rico’s official death toll from Hurricane Maria, the most powerful storm to hit the Caribbean island in almost a century, was on Tuesday raised from 64, a number widely discounted as far too low, to nearly 3,000, based on a study ordered by Puerto Rican Governor Ricardo Rossello.
The report found that an estimated 2,975 deaths could be attributed directly or indirectly to Maria from the time it struck in September last year to mid-February.
By comparison, deaths blamed on Hurricane Katrina in 2005 range from about 1,200 to more than 1,800, most along the Gulf Coast of Louisiana and Mississippi.
The latest Puerto Rican figure was derived from comparisons between predicted mortality under normal circumstances and deaths documented after the storm, a number that turned out to be 22 percent higher.
Researchers said they adjusted for various factors that could account for fluctuations in mortality, most notably the displacement of some 241,000 residents who fled the territory in the immediate aftermath of the storm.
They found that poor and elderly people were disproportionately hard hit in terms of risk of fatalities.
The storm’s death toll has remained controversial as unofficial inquiries and independent research suggested the loss of life was far higher than 64 people formally counted as having perished.
Tuesday’s study, conducted by George Washington University’s Milken Institute School of Public Health, was billed as the most comprehensive yet.
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the administration supported “efforts to ensure a full accountability and transparency of fatalities” from the hurricane.
However, US Representative Nydia Velazquez said the study was “only the latest to underscore that the federal response to the hurricanes was disastrously inadequate, and as a result, thousands of our fellow American citizens lost their lives.”
The second phase of the study will examine causes and contributing factors behind the deaths, said Carlos Santos-Burgoa, a professor of global health who was the lead investigator of the study.
He said financial instability and a fragile infrastructure made Puerto Rico especially vulnerable to such calamities.
The report was conducted in collaboration with the University of Puerto Rico’s Graduate School of Public Health.
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