New study claims Hurricane Maria killed 4,600 people, 70 times the official death toll

New study claims Hurricane Maria killed 4,600 people, 70 times the official death toll

US researchers have claimed that Hurricane Maria killed more than 4,600 people in Puerto Rico, 70 times the official death toll.

According to a Harvard University study, an accurate count of those killed was complicated by the widespread devastation that occurred after the powerful tropical cyclone, regarded as the worst natural disaster on record in Dominica and Puerto Rico, struck.

Previously, the government-provided death toll stood at 64 people, with later independent investigations putting the true toll at closer to 1,000. However, the Puerto Rico government has stated that it "always expected the number to be higher than what was previously reported".

Hurricane Maria, which hit Puerto Rico on 20 September 2017, caused $90 billion in damages and is ranked as the third costliest cyclone to affect the United States since 1900.

The Harvard University researchers conducted the study by going door-to-door at 3,299 homes randomly selected from across US territory, with survey-takers using criteria from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to determine if the hurricane could be held responsible for people's death.

Performed from January to February 2018 - a time when "many survey respondents were still without water and electricity" - the people who were interviewed were not paid for their response and were told directly that their answers would not gain them any additional government aid. If a family member was reported missing, but not yet definitely known to be deceased, they were counted as alive by researchers.

According to the researchers involved, the interviews suggested a 60 per cent increase in mortality in the three months after the storm. In order to come to this conclusion, they compared numbers to the same period a year earlier.

However, despite the numbers being 70 times the official death toll, it was stated in the report that 4,600 could be a "substantial underestimate" of the actual death count. Researchers noted that there's a chance it could be above 5,700.

"Our estimates are roughly consistent with press reports that evaluated deaths in the first month after the hurricane," the report read. "On average, households went 84 days without electricity, 64 days without water, and 41 days without cellular telephone coverage."

In addition, the study was unable to compare their new estimates with the latest government count, due to their request for access to those figures being denied.

The report ended by emphasising the importance of reevaluating the initial statistics, stating: "These numbers will serve as an important independent comparison to official statistics from death registry data, which are currently being re-evaluated, and underscore the inattention of the US government to the frail infrastructure of Puerto Rico."