Puerto Rico will officially revisit its dubiously low Hurricane Maria death count

Puerto Rico Gov. Rossello will revisit Maria death toll
(Image credit: Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

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."

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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."

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Peter Weber

Peter Weber is a senior editor at TheWeek.com, and has handled the editorial night shift since the website launched in 2008. A graduate of Northwestern University, Peter has worked at Facts on File and The New York Times Magazine. He speaks Spanish and Italian and plays bass and rhythm cello in an Austin rock band. Follow him on Twitter.