At least 4,645 people died amid the devastation wrought by Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico — more than 70 times the official government death toll of 64, according to a new study from Harvard University.
Locals, journalists and public health experts have for months questioned the government estimate of deaths from the storm, which caused more than $90 billion in damage.
President Donald Trump, however, said in October that Puerto Rico officials should be “very proud” of the low death toll.
The study, published Tuesday in the New England Journal of Medicine, is based on household surveys of more than 3,000 homes in the territory, where researchers found a boom in the mortality rate between late September and late December 2017.
The authors of the study, which was largely funded by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, described the official death count as a “substantial underestimate" and called it evidence of the “inattention of the U.S. government to the frail infrastructure of Puerto Rico.”
“The timely estimation of the death toll after a natural disaster is critical to defining the scale and severity of the crisis and to targeting interventions for recovery,” they wrote.
Researchers found that “interruption of medical care was the primary cause” of the high mortality rate that came after the storm made landfall.
With the 2019 hurricane season in swing, the authors also urged chronically ill patients, communities and health care providers to develop contingency plans for future disasters.
Trump said in October that the storm had been less devastating than Hurricane Katrina in 2005, but the new study indicates that may not be true. Hurricane Katrina resulted in the deaths of 1,833 people, according to FEMA.
"Every death is a horror," Trump said at the time, "but if you look at a real catastrophe like Katrina and you look at the tremendous — hundreds and hundreds of people that died — and you look at what happened here with, really, a storm that was just totally overpowering ... no one has ever seen anything like this."