Puerto Rico is passing the handling of its Hurricane Maria death count to the Milken Institute of Public Health at George Washington University, Governor Ricardo Rosselló announced Thursday. The news comes after months of criticism over how the U.S. territory has been attributing the deaths of American citizens to the storm that ravaged the island more than five months ago.
The university will work closely with the Puerto Rico Demographic Registry, the Bureau of Forensic Sciences, and potentially the University of Puerto Rico’s Graduate School of Public Health, to look at deaths between September 20, 2017, through the end of February 2018, according to a press release sent to Earther and tweets from Frances Robles, a reporter with The New York Times.
“We also want to employ the most recent and up to date science so we can properly and scientifically estimate what the death toll in Puerto Rico is,” said Rosselló, during the press conference.
So far, the official death count still sits at 64. But an investigation from The New York Times places that number closer to 1,000. Latino USA found similar results. CNN’s numbers were much smaller (though less comprehensive) but still seven times greater than the official count.
These media investigations looked at daily mortality data since the hurricane, as well as the number of dead at funeral homes. The government, on the other hand, needs to document details of every deceased person and cause of death to formally include a person in its death count.
The Puerto Rican government responded to the media analyses by ordering a recount in December. However, Rosselló put the same dude who was previously overviewing the death toll in charge of leading the recount. Now, Puerto Rico Public Safety Secretary Héctor M. Pesquera won’t be running the show; Dr. Carlos Santos-Burgoa will. He’s the director of George Washington University’s Global Health Policy program.
The Puerto Rican government has allocated $305,000 for this study, but the university would need an additional $1.1 million to investigate particular cases more deeply during a planned second phase. A science-based, peer-reviewed paper should be out within a year, with preliminary results out in three months. Importantly, the study won’t include “missing” persons. Right now, just four people remain officially “missing,” per Robles’ tweets of the press conference.
The ultimate goal, though, is to gather information about how many people died and why in wake of Hurricane Maria to prevent deaths in future disasters. And let me tell you: They’re going to come.
“Each life is important, and we recognize the sensitivity and responsibility with which this subject should be studied to avoid affecting the relatives and friends of the deceased,” Rosselló said, in a press release. “We are confident that ... this study may serve as a model for other jurisdictions of the nation and the world exposed to emergency situations like those that Puerto Rico faced after the passage of Hurricane Maria.”