The government of Puerto Rico is finally prepared to admit what academics and journalists have been asserting for months: The death toll from Hurricane Maria is far more than the official count of 64. The storm, which hit the southwest corner of the island on September 20, 2o17, actually killed 1,427 people, the Puerto Rican government says in a report set to be released Thursday.
The discrepancy between the official count and the one acknowledged in the new report is largely due to the types of deaths considered to have been caused by the storm. Some, including the drownings in the storm’s immediate aftermath, are obvious. But the many Puerto Ricans who died during the mass blackouts in the days, weeks, and months after Maria, haven’t been included in all death counts. As Matthias Schwartz explained in a December New York cover story, the long-term blackout that kept the island dark for months had a devastating effect:
The ripple effects of a long-term blackout can be deadly in ways that are difficult to measure directly. No electricity means no pumping stations moving clean drinking water into higher elevations. It means no electronic forms of communication, forcing entire communities to rely on word of mouth to stay informed. It means no electric heating, no air-conditioning, and no refrigeration. It means taking three cold showers spread across the night so one’s body will be cool enough to sleep. It means buying ice by the kilo to store food and insulin. It means an increase in burns and explosions as people switch to candles, propane, and oil lamps. It means generators for the few who can afford them, and darkness for everyone else.
Some estimates put the death toll much higher than 1,400. A Harvard study published in May said that 4,645 more people died in the months after Maria than would have if the hurricane had never hit.