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Hurricane Maria Caused 2,975 Deaths In Puerto Rico, Independent Study Estimates

A woman lights a candle inside a pair of shoes that were among hundreds displayed in memory of those killed by Hurricane Maria in front of the Puerto Rican Capitol, in San Juan in June.
A woman lights a candle inside a pair of shoes that were among hundreds displayed in memory of those killed by Hurricane Maria in front of the Puerto Rican Capitol, in San Juan in June.
Ricardo Arduengo/AFP/Getty Images

Updated at 1:10 p.m. ET

Independent researchers from George Washington University have estimated that Hurricane Maria caused 2,975 deaths in Puerto Rico in the six months following the storm.

The researchers' findings had been long-awaited. Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló commissioned the independent study in February, after months of public pressure over his administration's failure to adequately count the number of hurricane dead. At the time, he said the research team would have the Puerto Rican government's full cooperation, including access to all mortality data.

As a result of Maria, researchers estimate 22 percent more people died during those six months than would have had the hurricane not struck. They also said those most at risk for death were poor people and the elderly.

"The results of our epidemiological study suggest that, tragically, Hurricane Maria led to a large number of excess deaths throughout the island," Carlos Santos-Burgoa, the study's lead researcher, said in a statement. "We hope this report and its recommendations will help build the island's resilience and pave the way toward a plan that will protect all sectors of society in times of natural disasters."

Since December, the government's official hurricane death toll has been stuck at 64, though the government has acknowledged that number was likely far too low and would be adjusted once the researchers had completed their study.

It was unclear whether the island's government would adopt the researchers' estimate as its official toll. A spokesman for Rosselló said the governor would speak at a Tuesday afternoon press conference.

In addition to their new death count estimate, the researchers found that the Puerto Rican government did a poor job communicating with the public about the death count and more broadly did not have an adequate disaster communications plan in place, which the researchers said contributed to public confusion.

According to interviews that researchers said they conducted with health and forensics officials on the island, many were also uninformed about how to document hurricane-related deaths.

In the absence of a rigorous effort by Puerto Rico's government to count its dead, several media outlets and outside researchers worked to arrive at their own figures. Most recently, Harvard University researchers published a study that estimated the number of hurricane-related deaths likely ranged from about 800 to 8,500. That study had a wide margin of error because it was based on household surveys.

The George Washington researchers said their findings are more accurate because they are based on access to government mortality data and death certificates, and account for variables including the number of people believed to have left Puerto Rico after the hurricane.

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