Hurricane Maria claimed the lives of 4,645 people in Puerto Rico last year and not the 64 long pegged by the island’s government as the official death toll, according to a survey of thousands of residents by a research team led by Harvard University.
The researchers estimated that most victims of the storm died between Sept. 20 and Dec. 31, 2017, as a direct or indirect result of Puerto Rico’s worst natural disaster in 90 years. One-third perished because of delayed or interrupted medical care.
While cautioning that the estimate of 4,645 victims may be too low, the researchers said the numbers “underscore the inattention of the U.S. government to the frail infrastructure of Puerto Rico.”
The tally, reported online on Tuesday in the New England Journal of Medicine, is likely to be controversial because it is far higher than previous independent estimates.
The emergency response to the disaster became highly politicized and provoked criticism of President Donald Trump, who was faulted when much of the U.S. territory remained without power for months.
Puerto Rico’s government released a statement on Tuesday welcoming the study and saying it would analyze it further.
In the aftermath of the storm, Puerto Rico commissioned George Washington University to conduct an independent study into the death toll, the results of which are due soon.
“As the world knows, the magnitude of this tragic disaster caused by Hurricane Maria resulted in many fatalities. We have always expected the number to be higher than what was previously reported,” Carlos Mercader, executive director of the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration said in the government statement.
Maria, a major hurricane with winds close to 150 miles (241 km) per hour, caused an estimated $90 billion in damage to an island already struggling economically and many residents have subsequently left.