For months, interviews with funeral home directors and morgues have cast doubt on the accuracy of the official death count in Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria. The New York Times weighed in with a new data analysis on Friday.
The newspaper said it reviewed the daily mortality data from the Demographic Registry of Puerto Rico and found that 1,052 more people than usual died on the island during the 42 days after the hurricane devastated the U.S. territory on Sept. 20. The Puerto Rican government’s official death count stands at 62.
The Times said it calculated the figure by comparing the number of deaths for each day in 2017 with the average number of deaths on the same day in 2015 and 2016. The report noted that data for October has yet to be completed, with the island’s lack of power delaying record-keeping, and that the number of deaths in that month is expected to increase.
“Before the hurricane, I had an average of 82 deaths daily. That changes from Sept. 20 to 30th. Now I have an average of 118 deaths daily,” the director of the Demographic Registry in Puerto Rico, Wanda Llovet, told the Times in mid-November. She told the newspaper this week that both figures have risen by one.
HuffPost reached out to the government agency charged with monitoring the official death toll, Puerto Rico’s Department of Public Safety, for comment on the data but did not hear back at the time of publication.
Vox published similar findings in November regarding Puerto Rico’s death toll based on data analyzed by Alexis Santos, a Puerto Rican demographer at Penn State, and Jeffrey Howard, an independent health scientist and epidemiologist. The researchers used a similar methodology to the Times study, calculating average monthly deaths from 2010 through 2016 from the Puerto Rico Vital Statistics System and comparing the historical averages with total number of deaths in September and October 2017 reported by the Department of Public Safety.
Santos and Howard concluded in their study, which has not been peer-reviewed, that the actual death count may be around 1,085.
The New York Times offers the most recent comprehensive analysis of data regarding Hurricane Maria’s overall death toll in Puerto Rico. But separate investigations by the Center for Investigative Journalism (CPI), BuzzFeed and CNN had previously reported that the official death count was likely much higher.
The CPI reported Thursday that new information obtained by the center via the island’s Demographic Registry showed at least 985 more people died in the 40 days after Maria compared with the number of deaths during that same period in 2016.
“We have realized with this process [from Hurricane Maria] that there is a need to strengthen the documentation of the causes of death and the circumstances surrounding the causes of death that have caused this issue. That has to be documented,” demographer José A. López at the Demographic Registry told the CPI.
In November, CNN reported that it surveyed 112 Puerto Rican funeral homes and were told 499 deaths, from Sept. 20 to Oct. 19, were connected to Maria’s aftermath.
BuzzFeed spoke to funeral homes, crematoriums and hospitals on the island in October and found that more than 900 bodies had been authorized for cremation since Maria without being physical examined for possible links to the hurricane.
Secretary Héctor Pesquera of Puerto Rico’s Department of Public Safety responded to BuzzFeed’s findings in statement to HuffPost.
“The Institute of Forensic Science must, by law, authorize all of the cremations that are solicited by relatives of the deceased,” Pesquera explained in a Spanish-language statement, translated by HuffPost, at the time. “In this process, various documents are analyzed, among them the death certificate, proof of death, the medical summary or the document that certifies and shows the circumstances of the death.”