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Official Death Toll From Maria In Puerto Rico Is Way Off, Researchers Say


Researchers say the death toll from Hurricane Maria, which struck Puerto Rico last September, is around 5,000. That is far more than the original figure that was given of around 64. The study found that deadly effects of the hurricane lingered through the end of 2017. NPR science correspondent Richard Harris joins us now in the studio to talk about these disturbing findings. Hi, Richard.

RICHARD HARRIS, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: So first off, just tell us where this new, large number is coming from that's so different from the original estimate.

HARRIS: Right, yeah. And this was a - comes from a research team that was headed by scientists at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health at Harvard. And they organized a real shoe-leather study with colleagues on the island. First, they figured out how to identify a random selection of homes throughout Puerto Rico. And then their colleagues down there went door to door in January. And they talked to about 3,300 households - people in those households. And one question they asked, among others, was - did anyone die in this household in the year 2017?

And from that, they identified 38 deaths in the sample. Now, when you take that and apply it across the whole number of households in Puerto Rico and multiply that up appropriately and then compare that to the official death records from 2016, you can conclude - they concluded that the death rate had jumped 62 percent after the hurricane.

MARTIN: I mean, that's a huge increase, but at the same time, what you just outlined doesn't really seem like a very precise way to measure something.

HARRIS: That's true enough, and, in fact, the researchers themselves make that point in their article, which is published online in The New England Journal of Medicine. In that report, the scientists say that there were 6,000 - pardon me - 4,645 excess deaths. But they also acknowledged their findings are nowhere near that precise. The real number, they say, most likely lies somewhere between 800 and 8,500 deaths. And that is a huge range, but it's also obvious that the official count of 64 is really very far off the mark.

And I should mention that there have also been a few other studies that have been - and reporting efforts from The New York Times and others - that attempted to get at this number. And they all show the number at least a thousand. So this is in keeping with other estimates that have been made.

MARTIN: Why was the original estimate then so wrong? Like, why the disparity between these two figures?

HARRIS: Right. And the official figure comes from medical examiners who look at a specific dead body, and if they can see a direct connection to the storm, they count that as a storm-related death. But that's never going to give you a complete picture. The household survey, on the other hand, asked people what caused the deaths in those homes, and often they heard that either people couldn't get to the hospital in an emergency or that their medical equipment at home stopped working because, of course, there were massive power failures in Puerto Rico. And so that - those were contributing to the death rate as well.

MARTIN: So is this new figure agreed upon? Does everyone agree that this is the new standard, this new estimate?

HARRIS: Well, this is still a work in progress. I'm sure there will always be disagreement about these figures. That's partly because there's still sort of disagreement about whether the federal government on the island actually responded appropriately to the hurricane. It did so much damage. And the - you know, the feeling was the response was pretty lax. And you may recall President Trump appeared down on the island at some point tossing paper towels to the crowd and was saying, hey, everything's under control.

And that's clearly one point of view, but the other point of view is things are still pretty rough. And in Puerto Rico, the government did commission scientists at George Washington University to do a detailed examination of the death toll using a different methodology from what I just described. And so we're hoping that will come out sometime this summer. That's been delayed. But that will be another number, and we'll see.

MARTIN: Just briefly - any response from the Puerto Rican government?

HARRIS: Not as yet.

MARTIN: All right. NPR science correspondent Richard Harris. Thanks so much, Richard.

HARRIS: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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