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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

Updated 2 hours ago - World

American men plead guilty to helping former Nissan chair escape Japan

Carlos Ghosn, former Nissan chair, during a news conference in Jounieh, Lebanon, last September. Photo: Hasan Shaaban/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Americans Michael Taylor and Peter Taylor pleaded guilty in a Tokyo court Monday to helping former Nissan chair Carlos Ghosn escape Japan in a box aboard a plane in 2019, per the Wall Street Journal.

The big picture: Ghosn was awaiting trial in Tokyo on financial misconduct charges following his 2018 arrest when he fled to Lebanon. He denies any wrongdoing.

Reports: Trump DOJ subpoenaed Apple for records of WH counsel Don McGahn

Former White House counsel Don McGahn leaves Capitol Hill after a closed-door meeting with the House Judiciary Committee on June 4, 2021 in Washington, DC. Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Apple told former Trump administration White House counsel Don McGahn last month that the Department of Justice secretly subpoenaed information about accounts of his in 2018, the New York Times first reported Sunday.

Why it matters: Although it's unclear why the DOJ took the action, such a move against a senior lawyer representing the presidency is highly unusual.

Updated 7 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Victim dies after downtown Austin mass shooting

Police barricades near the scene of a shooting in Austin, Texas, on Saturday. Photo: Sergio Flores/Getty Images

A 25-year-old man died Sunday of injuries sustained in a mass shooting that wounded 13 other people in downtown Austin, Texas, the previous day, police confirmed.

The latest: Austin police named the victim as Douglas John Kantor, as they continued to search for one of two suspects. One suspect was taken into custody on Saturday following the shooting on 6th Street, a popular area with bars and restaurants.