(CN) – The death toll in Puerto Rico from Hurricane Maria could be 70 times higher the official numbers, according to a Harvard study released Tuesday.
Government officials in Puerto Rico put the official death count at 64 following the devastating Category 4 storm that destroyed the island’s already crumbling infrastructure. But the study, using a sample of thousands of households and comparing the numbers to last year’s official mortality rates, found a 62 percent increase in mortality from the date of Hurricane Maria’s landfall on September 20 to the end of December 2017.
The study estimates Hurricane Maria caused or contributed to the deaths of more than 4,700 Puerto Ricans. Researchers found one-third of the deaths were caused by delayed health care.
“These numbers will serve as an important independent comparison to official statistics from death-registry date, which are currently being reevaluated, and underscore the inattention of the U.S. government to the frail infrastructure of Puerto Rico,” the study said.
The Harvard researchers stressed the importance of accurate death toll statistics in targeting recovery operations after a storm and providing aid and emotional closure to families.
“As the United States prepares for its next hurricane season, it will be critical to review how disaster-related deaths will be counted, in order to mobilize an appropriate response operation and account for the fate of those affected,” the study said.
The research was published in the New England Journal of Medicine.
The group of researchers traveled the island earlier this year to interview Puerto Rican households and assess if someone in their family in their family died. The interviews were used to gauge mortality rates and compare them to the previous year. The study did not interview single people and researchers acknowledged the estimated death toll is “conservative.”
The team of scientists said government officials stopped sharing mortality data with the public after December 2017 and denied requests for more current numbers.
The agency charged with gathering the data, the Puerto Rico Institute of Statistics, was recently consolidated into the Department of Economic Development and Commerce, part of the island government’s executive branch.
A February letter signed by 15 members of Congress criticized the proposed consolidation.
Officials with the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Puerto Ricans are still dealing with the hurricane’s aftermath months later. In April, a storm knocked out power to the entire island. The 2018 hurricane season begins Friday.