Puerto Rico asks a DC university to review possible Hurricane Maria deaths

The government of Puerto Rico on Thursday announced it has enlisted George Washington University to review deaths tha...

Posted: Feb. 23, 2018 9:01 AM
Updated: Feb. 23, 2018 9:01 AM

The government of Puerto Rico on Thursday announced it has enlisted George Washington University to review deaths that followed Hurricane Maria.

The official death toll after the September 20 storm stands at 64 -- but reports from CNN and others suggest the actual number of deaths may be significantly higher, perhaps more than 1,000.

"I want to know the truth," Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossell- said during a press conference at the governor's mansion, La Fortaleza. "Our objective is that clarity comes to the situation," he added. "It's important for those that have lost loved ones -- and everyone in Puerto Rico -- (to) know close to the exact number of deaths (that were) due to the storm."

One aim of the review, officials said, is to estimate the number of "excess deaths" that followed the storm, a statistical measure that compares the number of deaths following the storm to those that occurred during the same time frame during the previous years. Researchers also plan to investigate individual cases, including interviewing family members of the dead.

A draft report, to be released in three months, will include a statistical estimate of the number of hurricane-related deaths between the storm and the end of February 2018, said Lynn Goldman, dean of the Milken Institute School of Public Health at George Washington University in Washington, DC. A peer-reviewed report on hurricane deaths -- including interviews with families, hospitals and funeral homes -- will be released in one year, she said. That report also will include a review of the Puerto Rican government's handling of the count.

"We will conduct this with complete integrity," Goldman said. "We will call it as we see it."

The Puerto Rican government will not edit reports prior to publication, she said.

Other academics praised the hiring of outside experts. The review is "a step in the right direction," although there's already ample evidence to suggest Puerto Rico is undercounting deaths, said Alexis Santos, a demographer at Penn State University.

The contracting of independent experts is "an acknowledgment that they've gotten a lot of flack for this and they have to do something," said John Mutter, a Columbia University professor who studied deaths after Hurricane Katrina. "The good thing to do is to get an independent group to help them do it, and they've got that. ... I'm glad (the governor is) doing this."

Gov. Rossell- announced a government review of the death toll on December 18, citing media reports indicating the death toll could be far higher than Puerto Rico had reported.

Officials had released very little information about the review of deaths until Thursday.

CNN this week joined a local journalism organization, the Centro de Periodismo Investigativo, in suing Puerto Rico's Demographic Registry for access to government death records.

In the interim, some family members of the deceased and funeral home directors interviewed by CNN expressed frustration that they had not been contacted by the government.

"They don't really want to certify the deaths," Jos- A. Ortiz Guzm-n, who believes his mother, Pilar Guzm-n R-os, died because she lacked access to power and medical services, said in January. "They just want to look like they're trying to do something. They really want people to stop talking about this" because it reflects poorly on Puerto Rico's response to the storm.

Funeral home directors tell CNN the government of Puerto Rico had not reached out to them in the weeks after the review was announced. CNN in February called more than 60 funeral homes across the island. Only two directors reported talking to government officials about deaths related to Maria.

The initial phase of the George Washington University review will cost $305,000 and will be paid by the Puerto Rican government, according to Puerto Rican officials. The next phase of the research, which would include reviews of specific cases, could cost $1.1 million and would be funded primarily through grants that would be solicited by George Washington University or Puerto Rico. It was not clear exactly which entities would provide that additional funding.

The University of Puerto Rico will assist with some of the research, officials said.

In November, CNN surveyed 112 funeral homes across the island, about half of the total. Funeral home directors identified 499 deaths they attributed to the hurricane. Data from the Puerto Rican government showed the number of "excess deaths" following the storm was more than 1,000 higher than in previous years, news organizations reported.

Some of the deaths CNN highlighted occurred well after the day Hurricane Maria hit the Caribbean island, which is a US commonwealth. Millions were without power and water in the aftermath of the storm; communications systems were down and some roads impassable. Today, about 15% of electric customers in Puerto Rico are still without power, authorities say.

These conditions may have contributed to ongoing deaths that could be counted as hurricane-related. Puerto Rico's death toll includes suicides and other "indirect" hurricane deaths.

Officials said Thursday they hope the academic review will help other governments, and Puerto Rico, better assess death tolls after future storms, and ultimately could help to prevent deaths.

Hurricane season in the Atlantic begins on June 1.

Questions about Hurricane Maria deaths initially surfaced after President Donald Trump, on an October 3 visit, praised Puerto Rico for having relatively few hurricane deaths. Shortly after Trump left the island, the Puerto Rican government raised the official death toll from 16 to 34.

Gov. Rossell- reiterated on Thursday that the death toll review will be independent of politics.

"Let me be very clear," he said. "There is no pressure to keep the number as it is."

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