Vox Media: New data show Puerto Rico's deathtoll from Hurricane Maria could be 20 times higher

While Puerto Rican officials claim Hurricane Maria, which destroyed power grids and left millions without clean drinking water, left only 55 people dead in its aftermath, researchers suggest the death toll may be off by more than 1,000, Vox Media reports.

Social scientists Alexis Santos, PhD, who studies Puerto Rican demographics at Pennsylvania State University, and Jeffrey Howard, PhD, a health scientist and epidemiologist for the U.S. Army Institute of Surgical Research, analyzed data from the Puerto Rico Vital Statistics System to compare the average number of deaths from September and October in the past seven years to the total number of deaths reported in September and October 2017 by the Puerto Rico Department of Public Safety.

When Hurricane Maria struck the island in September 2017, the results showed an uptick of 518 deaths from recent historical averages for that month. Additionally, there were 567 more deaths in October 2017 than recent historical averages for October. This equates to 1,085 deaths likely attributable to the storm, Vox reports, adding that "given that widespread power outages have continued into November, the number of indirect deaths from the hurricane is probably higher still."

Although Drs. Santos and Howards' work, titled "Estimates of excess deaths in Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria," has yet to be peer-reviewed and should be taken as preliminary findings, other researchers told Vox their methodology is one of the best ways to calculate estimates of disaster deaths.

Also noteworthy: the Puerto Rican government hasn't yet released its official totals for September and October, although it tried to address the controversial count issue at a Nov. 8 press conference.

"We want to explain this to you all so that all doubts about how we counted the deaths will finally end here," said Héctor Pesquera, head of Puerto Rico's Department of Public Safety, according to Vox. He noted September 2017 saw just over 500 more deaths than were reported in September 2015 and 2016.

"The reality is that this is not normal and we have to realize that there was a phenomenon here," said José A. López Rodríguez, a government demographer, according to Vox. However, he did not attribute the deaths to the storm. "There needs to be evidence to document it."

With no updated official hurricane death toll, it appears the Puerto Rican government is standing behind its 55-count estimate, if at least for now.

Click here to read the full report.

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