Hurricane Maria Killed Thousands More Than Katrina, Study Says

(Bloomberg) -- Hurricane Maria probably killed about 5,000 people in Puerto Rico last year even though the official count remains at just 64, according to a Harvard University study released Tuesday.

Such mortality would far outstrip the 1,833 who died in Hurricane Katrina in 2005, belying President Donald Trump’s boasts about the low death toll of the storm that occurred on his watch. Tuesday’s study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, said delayed or interrupted health care accounted for a third of the deaths in Maria, which hit the commonwealth in September 2017.

The research, funded by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and others, is likely to prompt renewed scrutiny of both the federal government and the commonwealth’s handling of the recovery. Large swaths of the island were without electricity and other basic services for months after the disaster, in some cases leaving dialysis patients and the elderly without care. The White House has been the object of criticism for its allocation of federal resources, but the commonwealth generated the death count.

The toll has shaped public discourse around Hurricane Maria. When Trump visited the island about two weeks after the storm, he seemed to pat himself on the back for the low numbers, comparing them favorably to "a real catastrophe like Katrina."

At the time, the government had only certified 16 fatalities, despite what was plainly a major unfolding disaster. The Harvard survey conducted among 3,299 households suggests 4,645 more deaths occurred between the storm’s Sept. 20 landfall and Dec. 31 than would have been expected under normal conditions. The researchers said the figure was a conservative estimate; when they tweaked the data to adjust for possible shortcomings in the sample, they produced a result of more than 5,000 deaths.

That would make it the deadliest storm since the Great Galveston Hurricane of 1900, which killed an estimated 8,000 people.

For weeks after Maria, officials from Governor Ricardo Rossello’s administration, led by public safety Secretary Hector Pesquera, appeared at press conferences to defend their count, and took umbrage at the suggestion that the real number was much higher. CNN and the New York Times, among others, subsequently produced studies showing an undercount, but neither arrived at a total as high as the Harvard study.

Speaking to reporters Tuesday in San Juan, Rossello said he welcomed the Harvard study and other resources to help better prepare for the hurricane season starting June 1. Rossello, who aligns himself with Democrats in mainland politics, said he had no reason to want to conceal the truth, and said the main objective was saving more lives.

Rossello’s government has tapped researchers at George Washington University to conduct a review of the count, but those findings have not yet been released.

"We had a protocol that really was subpar, and we recognize it," the governor said.

At the same press conference, however, Pesquera drew a distinction between Harvard’s survey and a tally “based on scientific data,” as he said the George Washington study would be. But he was subsequently asked whether he was minimizing the results, and he gave a succinct response: "No, I’m not."

San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz, who has blasted the Trump Administration’s response and drew fire from Secretary Pesquera for her questioning of the count last year, tweeted a news story about the findings and hinted at vindication.

"Harvard agrees with what I’ve said since October 2017," she told her 243,000 followers. "Many deaths were caused by poor management of the crisis."

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