On Thursday, President Trump leap directly into the path of an oncoming public disaster, tearing into the official Puerto Rican government estimate of the death toll from Hurricane Maria just before Hurricane Florence was scheduled to make landfall.
So, how was the count from Puerto Rico actually obtained? It was an approximation, not a list of names, according to Governor Ricardo Rossello. He stated the number could increase or decrease over time. George Washington University released a study based on “excess deaths” over the normal death rate at that particular time of year:
Our excess mortality study analyzed past mortality patterns (mortality registration and population census data from 2010 to 2017) in order to predict the expected mortality if Hurricane María had not occurred (predicted mortality) and compare this figure to the actual deaths that occurred (observed mortality).
They estimated “total excess mortality” at 2,975 – and that has become the government count. The Puerto Rican government had already increased its body count to 1,427 in early September, estimating deaths in the four months after the storm. But Lynn Goldman, dean of the university’s Milken Institute of Public Health, which ran the study, admitted, “among all the deaths that occurred, which of them were related to Maria, which of them would not have occurred if it hadn’t been for the storm? We’re not able to say that now.”
CNN acknowledges that there are multiple estimates:
In November, CNN reporters surveyed 112 funeral homes across the island, about half the total. Reporters found that funeral home directors identified 499 deaths they considered to be hurricane-related. In December, The New York Times estimated 1,052 “excess deaths”occurred after Maria. Others produced similar estimates.
A research letter published this month in the medical journal JAMA estimated that between 1,006 and 1,272 people died in connection to the storm.
In May, a team that included researchers from Harvard University published a study in the New England Journal of Medicine estimating that 793 to 8,498 people died in Maria’s wake, a range that some academics have criticized as overly broad. The study’s midpoint estimate — 4,645 deaths — became a rallying cry for activists upset by what they see as a lack of accountability for the scale of the catastrophe by officials in Puerto Rico and the United States.
So the official Puerto Rican count isn’t guaranteed, by any measure.