Skip to main content

Sign up for our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values. Direct to your inbox.

Puerto Rico

Hurricane Maria, which struck Puerto Rico on September 20, 2017, caused an estimated $90 billion in damage to the U.S. territory. (Photo:  Alex Wroblewski/Getty Images)

Harvard Study Puts Hurricane Deaths in Puerto Rico at Nearly 6,000 People—70 Times Official Count

Findings are "confirmation of an American tragedy," says Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (D-Ill.)

Jessica Corbett

A study published Tuesday in The New England Journal of Medicine estimates that nearly 6,000 people died in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria, with a survey indicating the mortality rate is likely more than 70 times the highly contested official death toll of 64.

Researchers with the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center surveyed thousands of survivors and initially estimated that at least 4,645 people died between when the storm struck the U.S. territory on September 20, 2017 and the end of the year.

However, considering that they could not survey people who lived alone and died due to the hurricane, researchers adjusted the estimate to 5,740. Citing the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the study says deaths can be attributed to the storm "if they are caused by forces related to the event, such as flying debris, or if they are caused by unsafe or unhealthy conditions resulting in injury, illness, or loss of necessary medical services."

The findings bolster a series of damning independent reports that have disputed the official death toll. Pressure from those reports pushed Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló to recruit researchers from George Washington University to review the government's process of accessing deaths tied to the hurricane and produce an analysis that is expected to be released in the coming weeks.

Pointing to that government-funded analysis, the Harvard study notes that its findings "will serve as an important independent comparison to official statistics from death-registry data, which are currently being reevaluated, and underscore the inattention of the U.S. government to the frail infrastructure of Puerto Rico."

The hurricane decimated the island's infrastructure, particularly its debt-ridden electrical system. According to the National Hurricane Center (pdf), Maria caused an estimated $90 billion in damage, making it the third-costliest tropical storm since 1900, behind Katrina in 2005 and Harvey, which struck the Southern United States last year.

Despite the widespread devastation and the humanitarian crisis that followed, accounts from journalists and locals have shown that the response by the Trump administration and Republican-controlled Congress has been largely inadequate. The Harvard researchers found that "delayed or prevented access to medical care" was the "primary cause" of post-Maria deaths, accounting for about a third of all deaths reported by surviviors.

As San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz, a fierce critic of the federal relief efforts, declared six months after the storm, "things are not what they should be...due to neglect and bureaucracy."

Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (D-Ill.)—who has also sharply criticized the administration's response and spent months advocating for greater government investment in recovery efforts—said the Harvard study "confirms my worst nightmares," calling it "confirmation of an American tragedy." 

While Puerto Ricans and sympathetic politicians fight for the funds to rebuild the island, the region is bracing for this year's hurricane season amid warnings that territory is not prepared for another intense tropical storm.

"This isn't over," tweeted novelist Laila Lalami in response to the study. "Puerto Rico is still struggling with services."


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.

This is the world we live in. This is the world we cover.

Because of people like you, another world is possible. There are many battles to be won, but we will battle them together—all of us. Common Dreams is not your normal news site. We don't survive on clicks. We don't want advertising dollars. We want the world to be a better place. But we can't do it alone. It doesn't work that way. We need you. If you can help today—because every gift of every size matters—please do. Without Your Support We Simply Don't Exist.

Please select a donation method:

Ilhan Omar Demands Answers After First Somalia Airstrike of Biden Era

"It is critical that we realize we are not going to simply drone the al-Shabaab problem to death," the Somali-American congresswoman asserted.

Brett Wilkins ·


'Huge Legal Win': Court Stops Police From Blockading Line 3 Protester Camp

One attorney described the blockade as "an outrageous abuse of law enforcement authority serving the interests of the Enbridge corporation against its environmental opponents."

Kenny Stancil ·


Shifting from Fossil Fuels to Renewables Would Add 8 Million Energy Sector Jobs Worldwide: Study

"Currently, an estimated 18 million people work in the energy industries—a number that is likely to increase, not decrease, to 26 million if we reach our global climate targets."

Brett Wilkins ·


Wyden Warns Millions of Poor Families Could Be 'Denied' Child Tax Credit Unless IRS Acts

Without urgent fixes to a shoddy online application portal, Wyden said, many of "America's most vulnerable communities" will not receive the expanded monthly benefit.

Jake Johnson ·


In Pre-Sentencing Letter, Drone Whistleblower Daniel Hale Says Crisis of Conscience Motivated Leak

"I came to believe that the policy of drone assassination was being used to mislead the public that it keeps us safe... I began to speak out, believing my participation in the drone program to have been deeply wrong."

Brett Wilkins ·