Apr 3, 2018 - Science

Death toll from Hurricane Maria severely underreported due to data shortfall

Forlorn couch sits amongst a ruined house

A destroyed home in mid-December 2017 in Utado, Puerto Rico. Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images

The lack of proper scientific data collection in Puerto Rico during and after Hurricane Maria hit the island last September has resulted in the death toll being severely underreported — the real number is closer to 1,085 than the government's estimate of 64 — essentially limiting necessary financial and other aid resources, according to research published in Health Affairs Monday.

Why it matters:

"[T]he official death toll undercounted deaths attributable to Hurricane Maria by a factor of 15 or higher. This is important because something failed, somebody failed to our people, and steps need to be taken to ensure that this does not happens again." 
— Alexis Raúl Santos, Penn State University demographer and article author, tells Axios

By the numbers: Several organizations have attempted to tabulate deaths from Hurricane Maria, which hit the island Sept. 20, 2017.

  • Santos, who estimates the death toll to be closer to 1,085, says most of the excess deaths were in older age groups — nursing homes showed a 45% increase of deaths in 2017 compared to 2016 and ERs experienced a 41% increase.
  • Mario Marazzi, executive director of the Puerto Rico Institute of Statistics (PRIS) — an independent agency that may soon be dismantled by the government — says he agrees the death toll in the three months following the hurricane reached more than 1,000 people.
  • The New York Times conducted its own research and estimates that 1,052 more people than usual died across the island in the 42 days after Maria struck.
  • The government's official tally remains at 64 people, but there has been growing criticism that this number is very low. They announced Feb. 22 that it has enlisted George Washington Universiy to review its estimate.

Why the discrepancy: Santos says a big issue is that the government was considering eliminating PRIS even before the hurricane, and in the meantime it appointed the Department of Public Safety to lead the information gathering efforts for Maria.

This "lead to miscommunication on issues related to the devastation and the death toll. I believe if the PRIS was involved in the process we would have heard the 'inconvenient truth'... some months ago," he said.

PRIS' Marazzi confirms that the agency was not included in the government's information gathering process, and says the low death toll numbers have brought global attention to Puerto Rico's data problems.

Meanwhile, more than 6 months later, recovery efforts continue. Watch this YouTube video partly featuring Santos on the devastation. The Army Corp of Engineers says power capacity is now at 90% and hopes to reach 100% by May. Higher rates of suicide and a housing shortage are also problems, Vox reports, along with what some call a mass exodus of Puerto Ricans.

Go deeper