Facebook Instagram Twitter YouTube

Hurricane Maria Death Count over 5,000–not 64, New Study Finds

A recent study published in The New England Journal of Medicine estimates the number of deaths caused directly or indirectly by Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico at over five thousand.

Juan C

May 30, 2018
Facebook Twitter Share

Photo: Hector Retamal/AFP/Getty Images.

In September 2017, only two weeks after Hurricane Irma, Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, causing critical infrastructural damage. Six months later, the death toll related to the disaster remains subject to dispute. The official death count is 64, but several alternative sources have asserted that the real number is over 1,000.

New research by scholars from Harvard University sheds significant light on the issue. In the study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, the authors surveyed 3,299 randomly chosen households across Puerto Rico to produce an independent estimate of all-cause mortality after the hurricane. The results are an astounding 4,645 estimated deaths related to Hurricane Maria in the period from September 20 to December 31.

Furthermore, the authors argue, this is most likely a low estimate, since the deaths of individuals living in single-person households cannot be accounted for through this method (many of the empty houses found during the survey were probably single-person households of a deceased individual). Accounting for this survivor bias– using national data of single-person households – the estimate increases to 5,740 excess deaths in that period. The data is publicly available.

Deaths can be attributed to a natural disaster in the case of accidents during the event, such as drowning or impact by flying debris, or to unsafe conditions that cause health damage or loss of necessary medical services. It is easy to see that more solid infrastructure, reliable public services, and preparation for natural disasters go a long way in preventing deaths caused by hurricanes.

The decades-long austerity policies imposed on Puerto Rico have left the island in dire conditions to face natural disasters such as cyclones or floods. When this kind of catastrophe occurs, it is largely portrayed as an unfortunate but inevitable event. It is true that hurricanes cannot be prevented, although global warming certainly increases their destructive power. But the damage and mortality brought about by this natural disaster can be dramatically reduced through appropriate investment in infrastructure and other preventive measures.

In an interview with Left Voice, Puerto Rican political activist Francisco Fortuño posed the question, “is it a surprise that if cutbacks and the prioritization of debt over people rendered the government ineffective in normal times, it would lead to ineptitude and collapse when it dealt with the worst crisis any Puerto Rican government has ever faced?.”

In 2016, the Obama administration imposed a Financial Oversight Board, or Junta de Control Fiscal, tasked with the goal of monitoring the implementation of budget cuts that would allow Puerto Rico to pay back the $73 billion in debt. These measures include the reduction of the $ 4.25 per hour minimum wage and a plan to slash the budget of the University of Puerto Rico by 75 percent. Héctor Reyes reported recently that183 public schools will be closed on top of the 167 that were closed last year before María.”

The consequences of budget cuts on public spending are visible in the long run and in situations of extreme need. For example, the study by Harvard scholars found that households in Puerto Rico went 84 days without electricity, 68 days without water, and 41 days without cellular telephone coverage after the hurricane. In the most remote areas, 83% of households were without electricity for this entire time span.

Many survey respondents were still without water and electricity at the time of sampling, in February of 2018, a finding consistent with other reports. The authors of the study assert that the findings will serve as comparison to the current official death count of 64 and to “underscore the inattention of the U.S. government to the frail infrastructure of Puerto Rico.”

In a macabre compound of oppression and profit-seeking, the Puerto Rican people pay with their work and their lives for the riches reaped by American capitalism. Boricuas are choked by a massive debt on the island or forced out and treated as second-class citizens in the U.S. The federal government in the U.S. and the puppet government in Puerto Rico are responsible for the preventable deaths of thousands of Puerto Ricans during and after Hurricane María.

Facebook Twitter Share

Latin America

Under Xiomara Castro’s Government, the Garífunas in Honduras Still Await Answers in the Struggle for Their Land

The Garífunas in Honduras persist in their struggle for their ancestral lands, while eviction attempts and threats against their leaders continue. Almost 10 months into Xiomara Castro’s administration, her campaign promises to the Garífuna communities remain unfulfilled.

Marisela Trevin

November 19, 2022
Argentina's Party of Socialist Workers (PTS) holds an assembly for workers to discuss working-class solutions to Argentina's crisses.

Thousands of Workers and Young People Participate in Socialist-led Assemblies across Argentina

Last weekend, the Party for Socialist Workers (PTS) in Argentina held over 100 democratic and open assemblies in cities and towns across the country to debate the inflationary crisis, government’s the austerity program, and a working-class solution.

Robert Belano

November 15, 2022
Jair Bolsonaro pictured on election day. Wearing a yellow Brazil shirt and smiling.

Bolsonarism Will Not Be Defeated in Brazil without Organizing Independently of the Lula Government

Lula won by a narrow margin in yesterday’s elections in Brazil, but his government is unwilling to truly challenge the Right’s advance. A Brazilian socialist describes the fight ahead for the country's workers and Left.

André Barbieri

October 31, 2022

Fascism or Bonapartism? Lessons from Trotsky for Understanding Brazil Under Bolsonaro

Is genuine fascism rising in Brazil? How should the working class respond if so? Marxism helps us to characterize the Bolsonaro government and spells out the method for confronting the extreme Right.

André Barbieri

October 29, 2022

MOST RECENT

The Roots of the Rebellion at Foxconn

Jenny Chan is a researcher and professor at the Polytechnic University of Hong Kong. She is co-author of the book Dying for an iPhone. She spoke with La Izquerda Diario about the causes of the rebellion by workers at the Foxconn plant in Zhengzhou, China.

Josefina L. Martínez

December 7, 2022
South African president Cyril Ramaphosa in a suit

“Farmgate” Threatens the Very Foundations of Capitalist Stability in South Africa

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa faces an impeachment vote Tuesday. More than a simple case of corruption, it’s a political crisis of the ruling party and of capitalist stability in the country.

Sam Carliner

December 5, 2022

Understanding the Carnage at Colorado Springs

The heinous violence displayed in Colorado Springs is a stark reminder of the menacing, lethal threat that today’s determined far right continues to pose to trans and queer people, and anyone living outside capitalism’s imposed sexual and gender boundaries.

Keegan O'Brien

December 4, 2022
Mapuche people standing with a flag

The Case of the Mapuche: What Can Trotsky Teach Us about the Fight against National Oppression?

Trotsky’s reflections on the social aspect of permanent revolution have deep implications for building working-class hegemony through solidarity with oppressed peoples.

Juan Valenzuela

December 4, 2022