Government of Puerto Rico Says It Expects GW Hurricane Death Count Study With Estimates in 2–3 Weeks

Jul 26, 2018
6:05 PM

Hours after Latino Rebels received the original English version of a George Washington University preliminary May report about the Hurricane María death toll that didn’t include any data or estimates about how many people died, the government of Puerto Rico told LR Thursday afternoon that it is expecting a more detailed report with estimates within the next two to three weeks.

The preliminary report, dated May 21 and called “Hurricane María in Puerto Rico: Advances on Phase 1,” goes into great detail about how mortality statistics are being collected from September 2017 (when María hit the island) to February 2018, but unlike a recent Harvard study, which estimated that the death count from the storm could be at least 70 times greater than the government’s official death toll of 64, the May 21 GW study contains no such information.

“At best, we’re expecting that [the actual data estimates] will come out in the next two to three weeks,” a government spokesperson authorized to speak on the matter told Latino Rebels.

“We don’t have anything of the actual study in our hands. The government doesn’t have anything right now,” the spokesperson said.

Around late May, both the government of Puerto Rico and GW confirmed that a detailed study with estimates would be available some time this summer, but it is still unclear whether that study will be completed, since the May 21 preliminary report stated that “A proposal is being developed for a next project, an in-depth analysis of the excess deaths that should address the cause specific mortality attributable to the hurricanes.”

A contract posted on May 16 by the government of Puerto Rico said it approved $305,368 for GW to work on the death count study, but it is unclear whether all these funds were used to pay for the data-gathering activities mentioned in the May 21 preliminary report or if the report with death estimates expected to be ready in the next two to three weeks is already paid for.

Questions about funding and whether the estimates would be ready in the next two or three weeks were sent to GW, but as of this posting, the university has not responded.

When asked why a preliminary report dated May 21 did not actually become public in Spanish on Wednesday and public in English on Thursday, the government spokesperson said that it might have been the case of a miscommunication with GW. The spokesperson also acknowledged that any journalist could have asked for the preliminary report before, but nobody did. In addition, the spokesperson said that even though they had the preliminary study, they felt they didn’t need to share it with journalists because it didn’t contain any actual data about the death count estimates, only focusing on the study’s process.

At a February 22 press conference, when asked about whether the María-related death count was closer to the official count of 64 or nearer to 1,000, Dr. Lynn Goldman, dean of GW’s Milken Institute School of Public Health, said researchers would have better answers in three months, confirming the speculation that the GW report would be made public in late May.

“In three months, we should be able to answer that question at the point in time. Is it closer to 60 or 1,000? In fact, we’ll be able to answer with more precision than that,” Goldman said on February 22.

During an interview with Latino Rebels Radio in late June at the Aspen Ideas Festival, governor Ricardo Rosselló said the government has stopped working on revising its official death toll until “[GW] can can use epidemiological studies moving forward.”

“Certainly, an area that we need to have a lot more clarity on, and that we’ll be better off for it, once a lot of the information from the experts starts piling in,” Rosselló said.

Earlier in June, the Center for Investigative Journalism (CPI) and CNN won a court ruling, instructing the government of Puerto Rico to provide mortality statistics and records for the months after Hurricane María. Data from the island’s Demographic Registry confirmed that there were “1,427 more deaths in the last four months of 2017 than the average over the four years before,” as reported by NPR. However, the government said that it was keeping the official death toll count at 64 until the GW study is completed.

Here is the full preliminary GW study, dated May 21:


Julio Ricardo Varela is founder and publisher of Latino Rebels, part of Futuro Media. He tweets from @julito77.