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A new Harvard study estimates the actual death toll from Hurricane Maria is dramatically higher than the official count

By Oxfam
View from Palmarejo, in Villalba, Puerto Rico, where Oxfam distributed water filters to families. Photo: Oxfam/Coco McCabe

These findings would make Maria the second deadliest hurricane in US history

The Harvard study released yesterday finds that more than 4,600 people lost their lives due to Hurricane Maria’s devastation in Puerto Rico – a number far exceeding any previous estimates. This is more than 70 times the official government death toll of 64 people and would make Maria the second deadliest hurricane in US history, with a death toll more than twice that of Hurricane Katrina. 

“More than eight months since Hurricane Maria hit the island, it is shocking that we are only just beginning to understand the full scale of the devastation,” said Martha Thompson, Oxfam America’s program coordinator for the Puerto Rico response. “As we face the next hurricane season starting on June 1, Oxfam is deeply concerned that despite billions of dollars pledged to Puerto Rico since Hurricane Maria, the island is still woefully unprepared for future storms. Currently, more than 40,000 people are estimated to still be without power, the power grid remains fragile and unreliable, and tens of thousands of homes still have temporary blue tarps for roofs.”

The Harvard study attributes many of the untimely deaths to interruptions in power supply, which caused medical care to falter. People were unable to access dialysis or oxygen machines, or to keep insulin properly refrigerated. If the US government had mustered a more robust and timely response to repair the grid or swiftly provide alternative power sources to medical facilities, the lack of access to medical care would not have persisted into the third month after the storm, with such drastic consequences.

As we anticipate future storms, vulnerable populations – including the elderly and those in need of medical care – are particularly at risk. Authorities should ensure all hospitals have back-up generators and water, supplies for emergencies, and a plan in place for communications. Investments should also be made in sustainably powered medical devises, particularly for homes in rural areas. 

The study unfortunately confirms what Oxfam and our partners saw in the weeks and months following the hurricane: Thousands of people lacked access to water, electricity, and most notably, medical care, with tragic consequences. We may never know how many lives were lost specifically due to the slow US government response, but at the very least, today’s study should force us to take a hard look at emergency preparedness and ensure a robust plan is in place to prevent a repetition of this tragedy in the next hurricane season, beginning in just two days.

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