Hurricane Maria’s Puerto Rican death toll skyrockets 72-fold | Science News for Students

Hurricane Maria’s Puerto Rican death toll skyrockets 72-fold

Official toll had been just 64 — and then scientists launched household surveys
Jul 10, 2018 — 6:45 am EST
destruction from Hurricane Maria

Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico in 2017, as a newly revised death toll indicates.


Hurricane Maria and its aftermath in Puerto Rico led to at least 4,645 deaths. That estimate is 72 times what had been the official tally.

Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory in the Caribbean Sea. The 2017 hurricane hit the island last September 20. Prolonged winds blowing at more than 252 kilometers (157 miles) per hour and massive rains downed trees. They also destroyed houses, schools, stores, roads, bridges and hospitals. The damage left islanders without power — many of them for more than six months.

People who initially survived the Category 5 storm still faced plenty of risks. More people died from September 20 to December 31 of last year than during the same time period in 2016. The death rate — or number of deaths for every 1000 people — was up by 62 percent. Researchers described how they arrived at their new numbers May 29 in the New England Journal of Medicine.

One third of the hurricane-related deaths came from delayed or interrupted medical care. Some people could not get needed medicines. Damaged roads made travel to get food or to reach doctors hard, if not impossible. Medical facilities closed. And with no electricity, machines to help patients breathe or to filter their blood no longer worked.

Medical examiners are doctors who report an official cause of death. What they put on official death certificates linked only 64 deaths to the storm. Other groups had estimated that number was low, perhaps by 1,000 or more.

The new study surveyed communities across the island for a more complete assessment. Researchers picked 3,299 households at random. Between January 17 and February 24, they asked residents in each household about deaths and any delays in medical care. They also asked whether these people had trouble getting water, power or cell-phone service. By now understanding how hurricane damage had made access to health care worse, the researchers could tie more deaths to the storm.

The researchers say communities need to review how they count deaths that happen during or after natural disasters. That way, officials can get a better gauge of risks. It can also offer lessons on how best to prepare for the next disaster.

Power Words

(more about Power Words)

Caribbean     The name of a sea that runs from the Atlantic Ocean in the East to Mexico and Central American nations in the West, and from the southern coasts of Cuba, the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico down to the northern coasts of Venezuela and Brazil. The term is also used to refer to the culture of nations that border on or are islands in the sea.

filter     (in chemistry and environmental science) A device or system that allows some materials to pass through but not others, based on their size or some other feature.

gauge     A device to measure the size or volume of something. For instance, tide gauges track the ever-changing height of coastal water levels throughout the day. Or any system or event that can be used to estimate the size or magnitude of something else. (v. to gauge) The act of measuring or estimating the size of something.

hurricane     A tropical cyclone that occurs in the Atlantic Ocean and has winds of 119 kilometers (74 miles) per hour or greater. When such a storm occurs in the Pacific Ocean, people refer to it as a typhoon.

medical examiner     A government official, usually a medical doctor, charged with investigating suspicious deaths and injuries.

random     Something that occurs haphazardly or without reason, based on no intention or purpose.

resident     Some member of a community of organisms that lives in a particular place. (Antonym: visitor)

risk     The chance or mathematical likelihood that some bad thing might happen. For instance, exposure to radiation poses a risk of cancer. Or the hazard — or peril — itself. (For instance: Among cancer risks that the people faced were radiation and drinking water tainted with arsenic.)

sea     An ocean (or region that is part of an ocean). Unlike lakes and streams, seawater — or ocean water — is salty.


Journal: N. Kishore et al. Mortality in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria. New England Journal of Medicine. Published online May 29, 2018. doi:10.1056/NEJMsa1803972.