On May 29, The Washington Post reported on a new Harvard study concluding that “at least 4,645 people died as a result of Hurricane Maria and its devastation across Puerto Rico last year,” which is approximately 72 times higher than the government’s official death toll of 64.
According to the Post article, the Harvard study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, concluded that “health-care disruption for the elderly and the loss of basic utility services for the chronically ill had significant impacts” across the island, including “some communities [that] were entirely cut off for weeks amid road closures and communications failures.” A BuzzFeed write-up of the same study explained that, while at least “4,645 more people died in the final months of 2017” than in previous years, researchers adjusted their estimate up to 5,740 hurricane-related deaths to account for “people who lived alone and died as a result of the storm” and were thus not reported in the study’s survey.
If Harvard’s death toll estimate is accurate, Hurricane Maria was the second deadliest hurricane in U.S. history and the deadliest in 117 years.
And yet, even as U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico continued to die in 2017, media quickly dropped their focus on the crisis. The first Sunday after the storm, the five major political talk shows cumulatively dedicated less than one minute to coverage. And the overall coverage of the crisis sharply declined after President Donald Trump visited the U.S. territory on October 3; a Media Matters study found that prime-time cable news coverage of Puerto Rico’s recovery plummeted after that date.
Media should publicize the results of the Harvard study and the woefully inaccurate official death toll, demanding an explanation for how the government hid the magnitude of the casualties. And as the next hurricane season approaches, we need to pay attention to the people who live in Puerto Rico and demand accountability from the government.