Hurricane Maria killed an estimated 2,975 people in Puerto Rico, an analysis commissioned by the island's governor found Tuesday.
Soon after the storm hit in September 2017, officials said it had directly caused just 64 deaths. Outside reports that included deaths caused by resulting power outages and other factors put the number much higher, around 4,500. Earlier this month, the Puerto Rican government issued a new report, estimating that 1,427 had died and acknowledging that it had low-balled the initial number.
Now, the latest analysis has studied deaths between September 2017 and February 2018, including a count of all "excess mortality" since the hurricane, not just Puerto Ricans who died due to an immediate physical effect of the storm like structural damage or flooding. CBS News reports that the study also sought to explain why Puerto Rico had issued such low estimates initially. The report found that local physicians were improperly trained in how to handle death certificates, leading them to mischaracterize many deaths as unrelated to the hurricane, when in reality the storm created conditions that led to increased mortality in 40 percent of the island's municipalities.
"The reality is that we take this very seriously," Carlos Mercader, executive director of the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration, told CBS. "2,975 — it's 2,975 people who suffered." Read more at CBS News. Summer Meza
Hurricane Maria destroyed about 70,000 homes in Puerto Rico when it struck the island territory in late September. Four months later, the Federal Emergency Management Agency is still housing about 4,000 Puerto Rican families totaling around 10,000 people in hotel rooms in 42 states. The hotel program is scheduled to end March 20, but hotel residents' homes remain too damaged to re-occupy.
"After the hurricane hit we told the kids that every day was going to be an adventure, but not like this," said Enghie Melendez, a Puerto Rican living with her husband and three children in a hotel room in Brooklyn. "This is turning out to be really hard," she told The Associated Press. "The instability is terrible."
Like thousands of other Puerto Ricans, Melendez and her family came to the U.S. mainland after the storm, first staying with relatives, then in a homeless shelter, and now in the hotel. They are uncertain of what comes next with the March deadline looming. "My kids were in a Manhattan school. We would wake up before 5 a.m. at the shelter to take them there," Melendez said. "Now they are in a Brooklyn school. Where will they be tomorrow?" Bonnie Kristian
The Puerto Rican government's official tally of deaths tied to Hurricane Maria stands at 64, but several news organizations have come up with numbers more than 10 times higher using statistical analysis and old fashioned research. On Monday, Gov. Ricardo A. Rosselló ordered officials to look into every death on the island since Maria churned over Puerto Rico starting Sept. 20. The real death toll "may be higher than the official count certified to date," he acknowledged. "This is about more than numbers, these are lives."
The New York Times studied vital statistics from 2015 and 2016 and determined that 1,052 more people than normal died in Puerto Rico in the 42 days after Maria struck, while Puerto Rico's Center for Investigative Journalism found that 1,065 more people than usual died. In October, BuzzFeed reported that Puerto Rico had allowed the cremation of 911 unexamined bodies since the hurricane, and CNN tallied Puerto Rican funeral home data and found 499 likely hurricane-related deaths not included in the official count.
Part of the problem is defining what deaths are hurricane-related in a territory where 3.4 million people lost power, along with hospitals and clinics, and water supplies were contaminated by hurricane damage. But getting an accurate fatality count "is not a vanity exercise," Alexis Santos at Penn State's graduate program in applied demography tells The New York Times. "Effective assessment of climate disasters is the only way we can prevent loss of life in future events."
There are accounting reasons, too. When President Trump visited Puerto Rico in early October, the official death toll was 16. "Every death is a horror, but if you look at a real catastrophe like Katrina, and you look at the tremendous hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of people that died and you look at what happened here with, really, a storm that was just totally overpowering," Trump said, comparing Maria with 2005's Hurricane Katrina, where 1,833 people died. "Sixteen people certified. Sixteen people versus in the thousands." Peter Weber
The official count of Hurricane Maria-related deaths in Puerto Rico is 64, but independent investigations have suggested for months that this number may be too low. In early October, BuzzFeed News reported that funeral homes had "dozens" more bodies than the government had acknowledged, and in November, a CNN survey of funeral homes found reports of 499 dead.
A Saturday report from The New York Times indicates the true death toll may be higher still. By comparing Puerto Rico's normal mortality rate from previous years to the number of deaths reported in the aftermath of Maria, the Times concluded 1,052 people have died in connection to the storm.
"Before the hurricane, I had an average of 82 deaths daily," Wanda Llovet, director of the Demographic Registry in Puerto Rico, told the Times in a November interview. "Now I have an average of 118 deaths daily." The difference between those two figures are excess deaths the Times attributes to Maria's destruction. Most people were not killed by the hurricane itself; many died of secondary causes like impaired medical care due to lack of electric service.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) on Tuesday will reveal his $146 billion plan to rebuild Puerto Rico's electrical grid after the devastation of Hurricane Maria. The legislation is supported by San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz, who has been a vocal critic of the Trump administration's handling of hurricane relief, and it is intended to be a sort of "Marshall Plan" for the island territory.
The new electrical grid would integrate renewable energy sources, so Puerto Ricans could get as much as 70 percent of their energy supplied by resources like sun and wind by 2027. Some $27 billion of the spending would go to energy and other infrastructure improvements. Another $62 billion would go toward the territory's debt, and $51 billion would be directed toward economic development.
Sanders' bill is unlikely to pass and may not even reach the Senate floor for a vote, The Washington Post reports. The governor of Puerto Rico has put in a comparatively modest request for $91 billion, while the Trump administration requested $29 billion in hurricane relief funding to be split among Puerto Rico, Florida, and Texas. Bonnie Kristian
CNN did its own count of the death toll in Puerto Rico. It's nine times higher than what the government has been claiming.
Fifty-five people have died in Puerto Rico from causes related to Hurricane Maria — at least, that's the official number. An alarming survey of funeral homes by CNN puts the death toll much higher, at 499.
The 499 deaths reported by funeral homes include "indirect deaths," which are included in official death tolls and involve circumstances "in which a person likely would be alive if not for the storm and its aftermath," CNN explains. In one example, a man who died in a house fire started by an oil lamp he was only using because of the storm-caused power outage "should be part of the official death toll, according to Puerto Rico's Department of Public Safety." But to date, only a funeral home has recorded that death, CNN notes; it hasn't been counted toward the official number collected by the government.
CNN's survey only reached 112 of Puerto Rico's funeral homes, or about half, the head of the Puerto Rico Association of Funeral Home Directors confirmed. Additionally, "there's always a significant number of bodies that don't get processed through funeral homes," said Eric Klinenberg, the director of New York University's Institute for Public Knowledge. "What that tells me [is that] there are a lot more cases to be reported — and that number is probably going to spike again."
Mónica Menéndez, the deputy director of the local Bureau of Forensic Sciences, dismissed CNN's report, calling funeral home reports "rumors" and claiming "there's no reason for us to be hiding numbers." Read the full details and methodology of CNN's report here. Jeva Lange
Public health officials are warning that Puerto Rico is teetering of the edge of a "full-fledged mental health crisis" stemming from the trauma of Hurricane Maria and its aftermath, The New York Times reports. In addition to "much" of the population suffering from symptoms of post-traumatic stress, patients with diagnosed mental illnesses have been severed from their normal routines of therapy and medication. "What we have lost is the foundation that holds a society together," explained the director of clinical psychology at Albizu University, Dr. Domingo Marqués.
Since the storm, twice the normal number of calls have come into the territory's psychiatric crises hotline and suicides are also up, with 32 people recorded as taking their own lives since Sept. 20. "When it starts raining, [Puerto Ricans] have episodes of anxiety because they think their house is going to flood again," said clinical psychologist Dr. Carlos del Toro Ortiz. "They have heart palpitations, sweating, catastrophic thoughts. They think 'I'm going to drown,' 'I'm going to die,' 'I'm going to lose everything.'"
With every hotel in Puerto Rico at capacity, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is trying something new: flying displaced Puerto Ricans to the U.S. mainland, where they will live in temporary housing in New York or Florida.
The island is still reeling from Hurricane Maria, with residents across Puerto Rico living without power and clean water. Through FEMA's Transitional Shelter Assistance program, displaced Puerto Ricans living in shelters will be flown to the mainland, their plane tickets and housing costs covered by FEMA. This is FEMA's first time doing an airlift following a natural disaster — it typically pays for people who can't be in their homes to stay in hotels.
Mike Byrne, a federal coordinating officer at FEMA, told CBS News that out of 300 families who have been offered assistance, 30 have accepted. "People really don't want to leave their homes," he said. Thousands of Puerto Ricans have already left the island on their own, with 100,000 settling in Florida. Catherine Garcia