In a report to Congress dated Wednesday, the US commonwealth’s government says documents show that 1,427 more deaths occurred in the four months after the storm than “normal,” compared with deaths that occurred the previous four years.
Officials stopped short of updating the official death toll for the September 20 storm.
“The official number is being reviewed as part of a study under way by George Washington University,” the report says. Officials hired that university to review the toll after news reports, including those from CNN, called it into question.
The George Washington University study “will have certainty” about the number of people the government believes died in Hurricane Maria and its aftermath, Pedro Cerame, a spokesman for the Puerto Rican government in Washington, told CNN. Officials initially said that report would be released in May. Now they expect it to publish this month.
“We understand that the number is higher,” Carlos Mercader, executive director of the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration, told CNN in an interview. “We didn’t commission the study to prove there were 64 (deaths). We wanted a scientific and epidemiological study that would give us light, not only on the number — we know the number is higher — but the reasons why this happened.”
The 1,427 figure is “an estimate,” Cerame said, and it may include deaths that weren’t related to the storm.
It’s an estimate that follows many others like it.
The Harvard estimate was based on surveys of 3,299 households in Puerto Rico, in which residents were asked about deaths in their homes after Hurricane Maria.
Mercader, the Puerto Rico official, criticized that study in an interview with CNN on Thursday. “We all know that’s impossible, that that couldn’t happen,” he said of the estimate that 4,645 people may have died after Maria. “We have the data. You all know that is an exaggeration.”
An accurate death toll is important, according to officials and academics, because it can help Puerto Rico and other governments better prepare for future storms, which are expected to become worse in the era of climate change. The official count also matters a great deal to the families of the deceased. Not only are they eligible for certain federal aid if the deaths are officially counted, but some relatives of the dead simply want their loved ones to be remembered.
She shared Ruiz’s story, she said, so “at least someone will know he existed.”
CNN’s Leyla Santiago contributed to this report.
News credit : Cnn