Hurricane Maria deadlier than Katrina, new study finds
What many Puerto Ricans have long suspected is now official: Hurricane Maria was the deadliest hurricane in modern history to strike the U.S., leading to many more deaths than originally estimated.
The government of Puerto Rico this week officially embraced a sweeping study conducted by researchers at George Washington University. The long-awaited study, requested by Puerto Rico’s governor, found that Hurricane Maria and a lack of adequate infrastructure on the island led to an estimated 2,975 excess deaths in the six months after the storm made landfall. The unusually high death rate came as Puerto Rico struggled with widespread and lengthy power outages, a lack of access to adequate health care, water insecurity, and diseases related to the crisis.
For most of the time since Maria made landfall, the Puerto Rican government has formally acknowledged the deaths of just 64 people from the hurricane. And President Trump, in visiting the island, said local officials should be “proud” that the death toll was not as high as “a real catastrophe” like Hurricane Katrina.
“If you look at a real catastrophe like Katrina, and you look at the hundreds and hundreds of people that died – what is your death count? Sixteen. You can be very proud of all of your people,” Trump said.
(Katrina, thought to have killed 1,833 people mainly due to its aftermath of severe urban flooding, is estimated to be the fourth deadliest storm to ever strike the U.S. Maria is thought to be the second or third deadliest, competing with a storm that hit Puerto Rico and then Florida in September 1928.)
GWU researchers acknowledge that their study has a limitation: It does not specify how people died, but is rather a statistical study based on death records and expected mortality rates. The researchers estimate that between 2,658 and 3,290 excess deaths occurred from September 2017 through February 2018. The poorer and older the resident, the higher the risk for death, especially among men over 65.
The GWU study, while perhaps the most exhaustive conducted so far, is not the only estimate of deaths caused by Maria and an inadequate infrastructure and response. Last spring, a study conducted by Harvard researchers and published by the New England Journal of Medicine, estimated the number of deaths to be anywhere from 800 to 8,000. The midpoint, 4,645, became a rallying cry for Puerto Ricans advocating for more recovery aid for the U.S. island.
So far, Congress has fallen far short of the estimated $95 billion some financial experts and Puerto Rico’s governor say is needed for the island to recover. Earlier this year, Congress approved an aid package for Puerto Rico which allocated only $16 billion for recovery. Puerto Rico has requested $14.7 billion to rebuild its power grid alone, but only $3.8 billion has been authorized for that purpose. At the time, the expectation was raised that Congress would provide additional funding for ongoing recovery efforts in Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Texas and likely Florida. There hasn’t been any action since.
You can read the entire GWU report, entitled, “Ascertainment of the Estimated Excess Mortality from Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico,” here.