Why has the Government Lied about the Scope of the Disaster in Puerto Rico?

Puerto Rico Death Toll

Just about nobody believes Puerto Rico’s official death toll for Hurricane Maria. The official tally is that 64 people were killed by the storm last September, but that is a massive undercount and so obviously inaccurate that the Puerto Rican government has agreed to review and revise its figures.

But with Puerto Rico still in disarray—from the storm’s casualties, population changes from migration, and the absence of basic services—information on the complete human cost of the catastrophe is still woefully incomplete.

What little is known, however, portends a grim conclusion: that Hurricane Maria is one of the most significant and destructive natural disasters in recent American history.

A new study in The New England Journal of Medicine, conducted in part by researchers at Harvard University, sheds new light on what’s really happened on the island.

The team found that there were over 4,600 deaths potentially attributable to the hurricane, a 70-fold increase over official estimates.

The survey also measured high rates of migration among people displaced by the storm and, after it passed, long periods where residents faced a loss of basic services.

But while this survey isn’t the definitive count of exactly how many people were killed by Hurricane Maria, what it does show with clarity is that the storm was on par with other recent natural disasters that have shaken the American populace and still reverberate today.

For example, the official death toll for Hurricane Katrina in 2005 was just over 1,800 people, and it also kicked off a mass migration of displaced residents. Immediately after that storm, New Orleans lost half its population, and it appears that somewhere north of 100,000 people from the city and its surrounding areas have permanently resettled in the years since. Katrina also fundamentally shaped public policy, sparking conversations on climate change, disaster risk management, environmental justice, racial equality, and class.

Hurricane Maria looks increasingly like Katrina in terms of its effects. At the lower end of the Harvard researchers’ death range, it could match Katrina’s toll, and on the higher end, it could eclipse it. If the true death count is closer to 8,000, the September storm would be the single most devastating natural disaster to hit the United States since the Galveston Hurricane in 1900.

As the effort to measure the fallout from Hurricane Maria continues, perhaps the most alarming implication of that work is that there’s potentially much more damage to come.