Death toll from Hurricane Maria estimated to be higher than previously thought

The number of people who died as a result of Hurricane Maria -- which hit Puerto Rico on September 20, 2017 -- may be as high as 1,139, surpassing the official death count of 64, according to researchers.

Jeffrey T. Howard, who joins the faculty this month in The University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA) Department of Kinesiology, Health and Nutrition, and Alexis Raúl Santos-Lozada, assistant professor of human development and family studies, at Pennsylvania State University, University Park, worked together on the study, published today in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Due to differences in calculation methods, there have been various estimates of the number of deaths in Puerto Rico from Hurricane Maria.

The official government death count has remained at 64 since December 2017, and includes deaths in which documentation of "hurricane-related" as the cause of death appears on the individual's death certificate.

Using death counts from vital statistics records, Santos-Lozada and Howard calculated death counts in Puerto Rico from January 2010 through December 2017, before Hurricane Maria hit. That data was used to come up with an average number of expected deaths for each month.

Researchers compared death counts from September through December 2017, following Hurricane Maria, and they estimate the number of hurricane-related deaths in Puerto Rico through December 2017 was 1,139 not 64. The researchers say that estimate is conservative.

Santos-Lozada and Howard took into account deaths directly tied to the hurricane and those in the following months from infectious disease outbreaks or lack of services like electricity, water and medical care.

Howard is hopeful this research can be used by government officials and emergency management personnel to better prepare regions for future disasters.

"This research is significant because accurate estimates of deaths from environmental disasters are important for informing rescue, recovery and policy decisions," said Howard.

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