Mourners carry a coffin

Mourners in Puerto Rico carry the coffin of a man who died after Hurricane Maria, which an in-depth analysis links to more than 4,600 deaths on the island. Mario Tama/Getty

Epidemiology

Deaths from catastrophic storm vastly exceeded initial estimate

Survey results undermine Puerto Rico’s figure for deaths from Hurricane Maria.

The death toll from Hurricane Maria’s assault on Puerto Rico was more than 70 times higher than the official estimate.

Several months after the September 2017 disaster, Puerto Rico’s government said that Maria had killed 64 people on the island. To verify that number, Caroline Buckee at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston, Massachusetts, and her colleagues surveyed 3,299 randomly selected Puerto Rican households about household size and recent deaths. The resulting data allowed the researchers to calculate the mortality rate in the three months after the storm. The team then compared that rate with the rate over the same period in 2016.

The comparison suggests that 4,645 deaths were associated with the storm. One-third of survey respondents reported a Maria-related death caused by lack of medicine, inability to use respiratory equipment or another health-care gap.