Hurricane Maria’s Death Toll In Puerto Rico Higher Than Official Counts

Researchers have figured out that as many as 4,640 people died in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria pummeled the country in September 2017. That count is over 70 times higher than what the Puerto Rican government reported at 64 deaths. The study looked at the fatalities caused by the storm in many different aspects, not just the initial death toll when the storm pushed through the country.

The study, conducted by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health (you can find the study in the New England Journal of Medicine here), surveyed almost 3,300 random households across the entire country of Puerto Rico to see how devastating the hurricane actually was. They looked at causes of death, the damage the infrastructure had, and displacement caused by Hurricane Maria and got an estimate of how many people died in direct correlation with the hurricane.

They found that between the storm made landfall in September to December of 2017 that 1/3 of the total deaths occurred because those people either had healthcare too late or they were not able to get healthcare period. Many of those people died because they either had no access to medication, the hospitals were closed down, or there were power outages at medical facilities. Some facilities didn’t even have doctors to help people, so those who were sick or injured did not have anything needed to help improve their condition.

The average of the 3,300 households studied did not have electricity for over 80 days and did not have water for over 2 months. Those households also went without phone coverage for 41 days. A lot of families were also displaced from Maria, with almost 3% of the people studied had to leave their homes related to the storm.

You might be curious as to why there is such a drastic difference between the number of deaths Harvard determined versus the number the Puerto Rican government came up with. In Puerto Rico deaths can only be confirmed if the Institute of Forensic Science has a medical examiner examine verify by seeing the body. This causes many delays in death certificates, insurance claims, and the death toll count is skewed since you cant always recover a body.

The reason this research was conducted is that it is important to learn how these people died so it can be avoided next time this kind of disaster happens. Many people argue that it is the United States’ responsibility to have avoided as many deaths as there were, but we won’t get into politics and response measures. Anytime there is a large loss of life something can always be improved to widdle that number down when the next disaster hits. Maybe next time Puerto Rico gets hit by a category 4 hurricane they can come up with a plan. It is important to remember that placing blame does not necessarily help this kind of situation. It is more important for every agency and government involved to decide what to do differently next time.

Hurricane Maria

Hurricane Maria was a category 4 hurricane that made landfall in Puerto Rico on September 20, 2017, two weeks after they were hit by Hurricane Irma. When Maria hit there were already (estimated, of course) 80,000 people who already didn’t have power because of Puerto Rico’s power company filing bankruptcy. Puerto Rico was also without water because the water company was somewhat negligible (the water provided to 70% of the company did not meet the Safe Water Drinking Act standards). Because of these existing problems, the damage dealt by the actual hurricane was amplified (it can even be argued that the power and water companies negligence led to many extra deaths).

Hurricane Maria from a satellite. Image source: Wikipedia

Hurricane Maria formed from an “African wave” and was categorized as a Tropical Storm on September 16. Within a matter of days, the storm was able to grow exponentially and was categorized as a category 5 hurricane on September 18 when it hit Dominica (Maria is the first cat 5 to have hit Dominica). The fastest winds that Maria registered was 175 miles per hour, and the highest pressure rating was 908 mbar making it a record-setting hurricane. Maria began losing its power and was downgraded when it hit Puerto Rico as a category 4 hurricane on September 20.

We cannot prevent hurricanes or earthquakes, floods or volcanic eruptions. But we can ensure that both people and communities are better prepared and more resilient. – Miroslav Lajcak

Hurricane Maria Stats
Highest Winds175 mph (280 km/h)
Death Toll (confirmed)Over 4,000 in all countries combined
Damage Done91 Billion USD
Affected Countries and AreasLesser Antilles, Puerto Rico, Dominica Republic, Haiti, The Bahamas, United States. Ireland, United Kingdom, France
Retired?Yes

Maria affected a lot of countries and is a part of the catastrophic hurricane season of 2017. Let’s go over the 2017 hurricane system briefly.

Notable 2017 Hurricanes

The hurricanes from the Atlantic Hurricane System of 2017. Image source: Wikipedia

The 2017 Atlantic Hurricane Season was extremely deadly, costly, and catastrophic. There were a total of 18 tropical depressions, 10 hurricanes, and 6 major hurricanes (a major hurricane is a hurricane over a category 3). Here are the named storms associated with the 2017 season (in alphabetical order):

  1. Arlene
  2. Bret
  3. Cindy
  4. Don
  5. Emily
  6. Franklin
  7. Gert
  8. Harvey (name retired)
  9. Irma (name retired)
  10. Jose
  11. Katia
  12. Lee
  13. Maria (name retired)
  14. Nate (name retired)
  15. Ophelia
  16. Philippe
  17. Rina

Out of the 17 named storms, 4 names were retired. Hurricane names are retired when they have a high death toll and are very damaging. Those names will be replaced by Harold, Idalia, Margot, and Nigel.

2017 Atlantic Season Tropical Storms and Hurricanes
NameDatesStorm CategoryWind StrengthPressure
ArleneApril 19 – 21Tropical Storm50 mph990 mbar
BretJune 19 – 20Tropical Storm50 mph1007 mbar
CindyJune 20 – 23Tropical Storm60 mph991 mbar
DonJuly 17 – 18Tropical Storm50 mph1005 mbar
EmilyJuly 30 – August 1Tropical Storm60 mph1001 mbar
FranklinAugust 7 – 10Category 1 Hurricane85 mph981 mbar
GertAugust 12 – 17Category 2 Hurricane110 mph962 mbar
HarveyAugust 17 – September 1Category 4 Hurricane130 mph937 mbar
IrmaAugust 30 – September 12Category 5 Hurricane180 mph914 mbar
JoseSeptember 5 – 22Category 4 Hurricane155 mph938 mbar
KatiaSeptember 5 – 9Category 2 Hurricane105 mph972 mbar
LeeSeptember 15 – 30Category 3 Hurricane115 mph962 mbar
MariaSeptember 16 – 30Category 5 Hurricane175 mph908 mbar
NateOctober 4 – 9Category 1 Hurricane90 mph981 mbar
OpheliaOctober 9 – 16Category 3 Hurricane115 mph959 mbar
PhilippeOctober 28 – 29Tropical Storm40 mph1000 mbar
RinaNovember 5 – 9Tropical Storm60 mph991 mbar
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