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Hurricane Maria Killed More Than 1,000 in Puerto Rico, New Study Suggests

For weeks, Donald Trump gleefully boasted about the job his administration had done in helping Puerto Rico weather the monstrous Hurricane Maria, particularly noting that only 16 people had supposedly been killed. "Look at a real catastrophe like Katrina and... you look at what happened here," Trump said of the death toll in New Orleans while visiting San Juan in October. "Sixteen people [dead] versus in the thousands. You can be very proud of all of your people and all of our people working together."

A new academic report, though, suggests that in fact at least a thousand people have died on the island as a result of Maria. The findings echo concerns from reporters and locals in Puerto Rico that the final official death count of 55 fatalities is far too low and that Trump's anemic response to the catastrophe has cost far more lives in the U.S. commonwealth.

"Our findings suggest that the actual mortality burden attributable to Hurricane Maria may be far higher than current official statistics and may exceed the current official death total by a factor of 10 or more," write the authors, Penn State demographer Alexis Santos and epidemiologist Jeffrey Howard.

Their paper, which was first noted by Vox, used a simple methodology: They acquired the total number of deaths reported on the island in September and October by the Puerto Rico Department of Public Safety and compared those figures to the historical averages for those two months over the past seven years.

Their findings were eye-opening: In each month, at least 500 more deaths were recorded than the historic averages for September and October.

"Our estimates suggest that the number of excess deaths in Puerto Rico may actually be closer to 500 for September, and if the pattern held in October, we estimate an additional 500 excess deaths," the researchers write in the paper, which — it's worth noting — hasn't been peer-reviewed yet and relies on informal death reports rather than certified government numbers.

But their findings aren't coming in a vacuum. Observers on the ground in Puerto Rico have said for months that the government's official death toll is laughably small. Vox did its own research last month by simply tallying reported deaths in local media accounts on the island and found closer to 500 fatalities

Huge swaths of the island have gone without power or clean water for months. Even today, ten weeks after the storm, at least half the island's residents still don't have power and 10 percent are without drinkable water. Meanwhile, the Trump administration has awarded sweetheart contracts to politically connected, undersized companies that have repeatedly failed to carry out their jobs on the island.

It's no wonder that an estimated 200,000 Puerto Ricans have fled to Florida.

The new study provides the perfect contrast to Trump's glowing quotes on the island in October. If the numbers are even close to accurate, Maria is Trump's Katrina. And the death toll will likely continue to climb.
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Tim Elfrink is a former investigative reporter and managing editor for Miami New Times. He has won the George Polk Award and was a finalist for the Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting.
Contact: Tim Elfrink