Hurricane Maria’s Death Toll in Puerto Rico: 64 or 8,500?

Harvard researchers repudiate Puerto Rico’s official death toll.

On September 20th, 2017, Hurricane Maria smashed into Puerto Rico at a startling 250 km per hour and killed at least 55 people on its first day. Until mid-June, the Puerto Rican government stood by an official death toll of 64 people. This figure garnered criticism from many researchers, politicians, and senators who believed it to be an extreme underestimate. Scientists from Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health and other scientific groups took it upon themselves to conduct third-party research to calculate a more accurate death toll. Unlike the Puerto Rican government (that only counted dead bodies recovered from the storm to calculate their toll), the scientists surveyed randomly selected households to gauge the actual devastation Hurricane Maria caused. They concluded (with a 95 percent confidence interval) that Puerto Rico’s actual death toll from Sept. 20 to Dec. 31, 2017, was between 800 and 8,500, with a mean of 4,646.

"For many in Puerto Rico — and especially for families of hurricane victims — the fact that the government's official tally of the dead remains at 64 more than eight months after the hurricane feels like an insult. They say it's a testament to how dismissive the government has been of their need to have the deaths of their loved ones acknowledged.” - Adrian Florido, NPR

This study generated an immense public outcry and was one of the factors that drove the government of Puerto Rico to update their official death toll to a little under 1,500. This debacle is a prime example of how important it is to rely on data during emergencies and how dire the consequences of not doing so are. Without accurate data, experts cannot truly understand the magnitude of an emergency and correctly scale future interventions in response.

Oliver SperansComment