The grisly business of counting the dead after a natural disaster would seem to be a straightforward one. There is a certain number of people alive before the event, and there is a certain number after. Subtraction should yield a figure similar to the number of death certificates issued, and the number of loved ones families claim have been lost. That total, a composite of incalculable amounts of personal and familial grief, is how people make rough estimates of a disaster’s magnitude and scope.
As the past year of pain and uncertainty in Puerto Rico can attest, in reality, this accounting isn’t so easy. Two major studies of mortality—and several additional estimates—have contained wildly different numbers, and their differences have only inflamed a debate over accountability and lapses in communication. They’ve also underscored the collapse of official systems and the disastrous response by multiple levels of government. The very act of counting the dead has transformed from a tragic, but standard, task of government to a months-long bureaucratic nightmare that has indicted deficiencies in both Puerto Rico and Washington.
Now the definitive estimate that researchers, policy makers, and aggrieved loved ones have been waiting for has finally arrived. On Tuesday, researchers from the George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health released a series of studies on Hurricane Maria’s impact in Puerto Rico. The mortality study, completed at the official request of Puerto Rican Governor Ricardo Rosselló and administered in conjunction with the University of Puerto Rico, analyzed official Puerto Rican vital statistics to find that the hurricane resulted in 2,975 excess deaths from its landfall in September 2017 to February 2018. Two complementary studies in the same report illustrate major deficiencies in the island’s disaster communications, as well as a mass confusion among health professionals over how to complete death certificates after the storm.