A study commissioned by Puerto Rico's governor Ricardo Rossello and released on Tuesday, raised the death toll as a result of Hurricane Maria last year from 64 to nearly 3,000.
The report, by researchers at George Washington University estimated there were 2,975 excess deaths in Puerto Rico stemming from the hurricane from September 2017 through February 2018. The total is vastly greater than the official fatality count of 64, and is more than double some of the estimates from previous studies by academic researchers and media organizations, according to the WSJ.
For the past year, Puerto Rico’s government faced criticism that it had drastically undercounted the number of fatalities caused by Maria.
Then, earlier this month, it acknowledged in a document filed to Congress that the death toll from Maria was much higher than the official total. But Gov. Rossello’s administration said it would await the results of the George Washington University study, which it commissioned in December, to update the official count.
The release of the George Washington University study comes as the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Maria approaches on Sept. 20, and Congress considers the island government’s request for federal aid to rebuild from the storm.
But where did the massive revision come from, and how were the nearly three thousand people missed the first time around? In one word, statistics.
The George Washington University researchers estimated the number of excess deaths by analyzing death certificates and other mortality data, and comparing the number of deaths during the designated period to past mortality patterns. They calculated the total number of deaths in the period was 22% higher than the number of fatalities that would have been expected, the researchers said.
Researchers also pointed to several problems in the death-certification process that contributed to the island government’s undercounting of fatalities. Among them were a lack of training for physicians on how to certify deaths after a natural disaster and the government’s lack of communication about proper death-certificate reporting prior to the 2017 hurricane season.
One can even all it "non-GAAP" deaths, or determinations revised well after the event, with the appropriate nudge here or there:
Researchers’ interviews with people in Puerto Rico involved in the death-certification process revealed “confusion about the guidelines” and “reluctance to relate deaths to hurricanes due to concern about the subjectivity of this determination,” according to the study.
The report even blamed the government's poor communication skills and the lack of personnel training for being able to, wait for it, determine if a death was a death.
The report’s authors also cited concerns about how the Puerto Rican government discussed the matter with the public. Agencies lacked sufficient personnel trained in emergency communications and formal protocols for mortality reporting involving the Department of Public Safety and the Department of Health, researchers said.
“This contributed to delayed information availability, gaps in information and the dissemination of inconsistent information to the public,” according to the study.
Of course, fake news was also referenced:
The government also failed to explain the death-certification process and to address rumors in news outlets and social media, researchers said. Efforts by outside groups to fill the information void added to the confusion, with conflicting mortality reports, they said.
But no matter how it was revised, the better question may be why, and here the answer appears to be simple: money.
As the WSJ reports, in the document that Puerto Rico’s government filed to Congress that conceded the death toll likely surpassed the official count, island officials detailed an ambitious range of proposed reconstruction projects. The 531-page plan included requests for $139 billion worth of projects, including housing initiatives and energy investments.
The price tag far exceeds the amounts that federal agencies and lawmakers have designated thus far.
And what better way to grease a few palms than by boosting the death toll some 46 times...