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In light of Trump's remarks, what to make of the jump in Hurricane Maria's death toll

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MIAMI(EDITORS NOTE: In light of President Trump's tweets disputing the death toll in Puerto Rico from Hurricane Maria, we are republishing an article written about the jump in numbers and why they occurred.)

About the new death toll from Hurricane Maria released by the Puerto Rican government in August. We’ve seen conflicting information associated with the process of coming up with a realistic accounting of how many people died during and after the storm.

Suddenly, the official toll was revised to 2,975, reflecting the results of a study done by George Washington University. The survey was commissioned by the Puerto Rican government. Researchers compared the number of deaths in the six months after Maria to the normally expected death rate to come up with the estimate.

The previous official death toll was 64. But's important to understand, the number of people who died because of Maria did not suddenly jump from 64 to 2,975. 

With the island’s medical, communications, and transportation systems in total collapse, the Puerto Rican government decided to stop counting shortly after the storm. Any accurate count at the time of the event was impossible.

Expecting an accurate count in the middle of a disaster is and always will be unrealistic.

This was true during Hurricane Katrina as well. We still don't know for sure how many people died when the storm hit and because of the horrific flood in the few days after. The best estimate is "about 1500." And New Orleans was far more accessible than the mountainous island of Puerto Rico.

The widely accepted total death toll from Katrina is 1,833. That number comes from the National Hurricane Center report issued less than four months after landfall in December of 2005. There is no question that deaths, especially among the elderly, occurred at a higher rate than normal well into 2006 due to the trauma of the hurricane, however. So the real Katrina toll is fuzzy.

The new estimated Maria death-toll estimate covers six months after the storm hit, not four, so immediately we're talking apples and at least some oranges.

The official death-toll from Superstorm Sandy was 117 in the U.S. according the Centers for Disease Control. But that number was calculated about one month after the event.

There were almost certainly elderly people who prematurely died due to the stress of being evacuated from their nursing homes at the height of the storm for many months afterward. They had to be carried to safety though wind and rain and storm surge flooding because New York City elected not to evacuate them in advance. Should they be counted as storm casualties? Probably, but there is simply no uniform way the counting is done.

The bottom line is, we generally don't know how many people die in large-scale catastrophes when the government - local and/or federal - loses control of the situation on the ground.

Additionally, we shouldn't automatically compare the new estimated Maria toll of 2,975 with any other number from any other storm. With no standard, the comparisons are not valid.

It stands on its own as a testament to the horrific circumstances that Hurricane Maria inflicted on the people of Puerto Rico.

There is a lot of blame to go around for the situation that Puerto Rico found itself in before Maria hit. But the government there should get credit stopping the count when they knew it was wrong, and then commissioning a credible study to try to determine what happened to its people.


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