Puerto Rico’s death toll from hurricanes Irma and Maria is significantly higher than the official account, according to an analysis Friday from The New York Times.
In the 42 days after Maria clobbered the island in September as a Category 4 storm, 1,052 more people than usual died across the American territory, TheNYT reported. The analysis compared the deaths for each day in 2017 with those for the previous two years.
Officials believe only 62 people have died directly from the storm that pounded Puerto Rico with nearly 150-mile-an-hour winds and cut off power to 3.4 million citizens. Broken communication on the island likely caused the deflated death toll numbers.
“Before the hurricane, I had an average of 82 deaths daily. That changes from Sept. 20 to 30th. Now I have an average of 118 deaths daily,” Wanda Llovet, the director of the Demographic Registry in Puerto Rico, said in November. The numbers were 17 times higher in 2017 than in previous years.
The bulk of the deaths were indirectly related to the hurricane. People bedridden in hospitals, for instance, were having trouble getting medical treatment, and people on respirators lacked electricity to power the machines.
Nearly 135 people died in Puerto Rico on Sept. 25, the deadliest day following Maria’s landfall, according to TheNYT. Only 75 people died on that same day in 2016 and 60 died in 2015.
“Will it go up? I am pretty sure it will go up,” Héctor Pesquera, Puerto Rico’s public safety secretary, said in a statement on Sept. 29. “It won’t double or triple.” TheNYT reported that 127 people died that day, 57 more than the year before.
Robert Anderson, a mortality statistics expert, said Puerto Rico’s spike in death is unlikely to be the result of an unlucky fluke. “I think there’s fairly compelling evidence that that increase is probably due to the hurricane,” Anderson said. “That’s a lot.”
Puerto Rico’s debt problems make the island’s beleaguered infrastructure all the worse.
The island filed for bankruptcy in May and recently closed 200 schools to save $7 million, while simultaneously issuing 107 consulting contracts since January to questionable recipients, according to a report in September from The Daily Caller News Foundation.
Island officials spent more than $256 billion in federal funds from 1990 through 2009, but only collected $74 billion in tax revenue. The U.S. territory is required to prioritize its payments to creditors unless the funds go to essential services.
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