Vital Statistics: the Puerto Rico edition

When President Trump visited Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria, he noted that only 16 people had died and compared that to the death toll after Hurricane Katrina:

“Sixteen people certified.” Trump said on October 3 during his visit to the island, repeating a figure confirmed by the territory’s governor. “Everybody watching can be very proud of what’s taken place in Puerto Rico.”

This was an improbably low number and immediately there were some posts suggesting that looking at vital statistics records could clarify this:

Everything that’s been reported about deaths in Puerto Rico is at odds with the official count
Eliza Barclay and Alexia Fernandez Campbell | Vox
October 11, 2017
According to this article, the method in use for the 16 certified deaths:

. . . “every death must be confirmed by the Institute of Forensic Science, which means either the bodies have to be brought to San Juan to do an autopsy or a medical examiner must be dispatched to the local municipality to verify the death”

Methodology suggested by John Mutter, Columbia University

. . . count all the deaths in the time since the event, and then compare that number to the average number of deaths in the same time period from previous years. Subtract the average number from the current number and that’s the death toll.

Rather than waiting for a year for Puerto Rican deaths to show up on the CDC website, investigators went to Puerto Rico to look at the vital registration system. Here’s a sampling.

Estimates of excess deaths in Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria
Alexis Santo-Lozada and Jeffrey Howard | SocArXiv Papers
November 21, 2017

Nearly 1,000 More People Died in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria
Center for Investigative Journalism
December 7, 2017

Official Toll in Puerto Rico: 64. Actual Deaths May be 1,052
Frances Robles, Kenan Davis, Sheri Fink, and Sarah Almukhtar | New York Times
December 9, 2017
And, this one wins the prize for the best graphics. The first graph shows the excess deaths over previous years; the second is a table that shows causes of death – not just drownings and electrocutions, which are typical for hurricane events.

excess death graph

table showing causes of death


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