Downed electrical poles at Playa Punta Santiago in Humacao, Puerto Rico in December 2017

Pedro Portal/El Nuevo Herald/TNS/Sipa USA

Researchers: Hurricane Maria Was To Blame For Over 4,600 Deaths In Puerto Rico

May 29, 2018 - 4:33 pm

SAN JUAN (WCBS 880/AP) -- The official government death toll in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria was 64, but researchers at Harvard University now believe the actual number was in excess of 4,600.

Most of the deaths were due to problems getting medicines or medical care, the researchers said.

The research was published online in the New England Journal of Medicine. It is the latest study to analyze how many people died during or after the Category 4 storm that hit the U.S. territory in September 2017, causing more than an estimated $100 billion in damage.

Researchers called the official toll of 64 deaths a "substantial underestimate."

As WCBS 880’s Peter Haskell reported, the estimated death toll is staggering, but not surprising, according to Irwin Redlener, the director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University.

Redlener suspects a government undercount.

“And for a variety of reasons, (the government) does not want the real numbers out there, I guess,” Redlener said.

The researchers calculated 4,645 more people died in the three months after Maria compared with the same period in 2016. One of the researchers, Rafael Irizarry of Harvard University, told the AP that the estimate is uncertain because of its limited size, but that the study still provides valuable information, including how some people died.

Previous studies have found that the number of direct and indirect hurricane-related deaths in Puerto Rico is higher than the official toll, including a 2017 report that there were nearly 500 more deaths than usual on the island in September.

Redlener said prevention of such death tolls in future is critical.

“It is very important that we understand what are the causes of death in a big storm like this, so that we can try to mitigate or prevent this from happening in the future,” he said.

Redlener believes the lack of medicine for those with chronic conditions, and a lack of power for those with critical conditions, led to the deaths.

Maria caused the longest blackout in U.S. history, leaving the entire island of 3.3 million people without power, including those in hospitals and nursing homes who relied on respirators. Researchers surveyed 3,299 households earlier this year and used the findings to extrapolate to the whole island. They found that 31 percent reported disruptions in medical services, and more than 14 percent said they were unable to access medications.

"Indirect deaths resulting from worsening of chronic conditions or from delayed medical treatments may not be captured on death certificates," researchers said in the study.

In late February, Puerto Rico's governor announced that a team of experts at George Washington University would lead an independent review to determine the number of deaths caused by Hurricane Maria amid ongoing accusations that the government undercounted the toll. A preliminary report was due in May, but Puerto Rico officials announced last week that the team requested and was granted more time. The director of that study did not return messages for comment.

The government of Puerto Rico issued a statement Tuesday in response to the study saying that it welcomed the research and would analyze it.

"As the world knows, the magnitude of this tragic disaster caused by Hurricane Maria resulted in many fatalities. We have always expected the number to be higher than what was previously reported," said Carlos Mercader, executive director of Puerto Rico's Federal Affairs Administration.

Meanwhile, a couple of media organizations have gone to court to obtain more details on the deaths reported in Puerto Rico last year. Demographers have said that Puerto Rico recorded an official average of 82 deaths a day in the two weeks before Maria hit. The number increased to 117 a day after the storm pummeled the island in mid-September and then fell below usual in October.

(© 2018 WCBS 880. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)