A study published this week in the New England Journal of Medicine claims officials in Puerto Rico dramatically downplayed the death toll from Hurricane Maria.
Rather than the official count of 64 deaths, the researchers say more than 4,600 people likely died after the September 2017 storm slammed into the island as a Category 4 hurricane.
Connecticut Democrats jumped on the news — issuing statements critical of the Trump administration’s response to the storm. Senator Richard Blumenthal said the researchers’ estimates were “heartbreaking figures” and called for Congress to hold hearings into the administration’s “shameful failure in Puerto Rico.”
The U.S. territory continues to struggle to recover from the massive damage the storm did to the island’s infrastructure — particularly its power grid and water system.
Representative Rosa DeLauro said she was “outraged and saddened” by the new data, adding that many of the deaths can be attributed to the failure to get adequate medical assistance. She said that perhaps some could have been prevented if Puerto Rico received needed resources immediately after the hurricane struck.
“If Americans on the mainland had been hit by this type of natural disaster, there would not be a question about providing the resources needed to recover,” DeLauro said. “History will make clear that the United States shamefully mishandled the recovery effort, failing to uphold our nation’s moral obligation to our fellow Americans.”
George Washington University researchers, in a study published this week in the New England Journal of Medicine, found through their survey efforts that there were more than 4,600 hurricane-related deaths on Puerto Rico rather than the 64 deaths the U.S. territory attributed to Hurricane Maria.
Researchers surveyed around 3,200 households across Puerto Rico between mid-January and late February and asked, among other things, if anyone in the household died from the day the hurricane hit and the end of 2017. Extrapolating the survey results, they found that somewhere between 793 and 8,498 deaths occurred beyond what normally happen on the island. The midpoint of that range is 4,645.
The researchers said about a third of the deaths could be traced to “delayed or prevented access to medical care” due to the hurricane. They cited an inability to obtain medications, closed medical facilities, and a lack of electricity for necessary medical equipment.
“In our survey, interruption of medical care was the primary cause of sustained high mortality rates in the months after the hurricane, a finding consistent with the widely reported disruption of health systems,” the researchers wrote.
The survey found that after Maria hit, it took an average of 68 days for households to have their water service restored, 84 days for their electricity to return, and 41 days for their wireless phone service to come back online. The survey also found “substantial population displacement” with nearly 3 percent of the sampled population reporting they left their household because of the storm — with 41 percent moving to the mainland United States.