ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Two thousand, nine hundred and seventy-five - that's the estimated number of people who died because of Hurricane Maria in the first six months after the storm struck Puerto Rico. This new death toll was released today, nearly a year after the storm. It comes from a new independent study commissioned by Puerto Rico's government. NPR's Adrian Florido has been following this story for months and joins us now. Hi, Adrian.
ADRIAN FLORIDO, BYLINE: Hi, Ari.
SHAPIRO: There have been a lot of different estimates of how many people died. What makes this new one significant?
FLORIDO: Well, this is a study that was commissioned by Puerto Rico's own government. If you remember shortly after the storm, the government started getting a lot of criticism for not taking its death count seriously - beginning with that famous visit from President Trump, when he touted that there'd only been 16 deaths certified. Puerto Rico's government stopped counting at 64. And a lot of media outlets and other researchers started trying to arrive at their own numbers. And so this issue kept getting more and more controversial. And finally in February, Puerto Rico's Governor Ricardo Rossello announced that he would ask researchers from George Washington University to start looking into it and arrive at their own number. And that's when they started working on this study that they released today.
SHAPIRO: To jump from 16 to 64 to nearly 3,000 is really striking, how did researchers get to this new number?
FLORIDO: Well, they analyzed government data. They reviewed death certificates and the government's death registry for that six-month period after the storm. And then using statistical modeling, they compared that six-month period to previous six-month periods in previous years. And while many more people obviously died in the six months after the hurricane, that number 2,975 is the number that they say - they estimate died because of the storm.
SHAPIRO: And what does this research say about the groups of people who are most affected by the hurricane?
FLORIDO: Well, researchers found that every part of the island was affected. But the people who were most affected were old people and poor people. What is still not clear to researchers is which of those nearly 3,000 deaths were caused directly by the storm - so for example, someone drowning, or a tree falling or an accident - and which were indirect deaths - so for example, a diabetic person whose insulin might have gone bad because the power was out - right? -and then died as a result of the complications. And the researchers hope to get those answers - those more granular details in a second phase of the study that they hope to start soon.
SHAPIRO: Adrian, you've been living in Puerto Rico for most of the last year reporting on the aftermath of the hurricane. Explain how the government there got these initial numbers just so very wrong.
FLORIDO: Well, it's just very clear that they mishandled this at many steps in the process in the death count. And that's one of the things that this report found - that many officials, for example, on the island who are responsible for recording deaths and issuing death certificates, had not even been properly informed on how to report disaster-related deaths. And so it was hard to come up with a tally. The study also said that the government had done a poor job of communicating with the public about the death count. And that ended up actually causing a lot of confusion. So the researchers made a number of recommendations in their report aimed at improving the government's response in the future.
SHAPIRO: What has the reaction today been from Puerto Rico's governor?
FLORIDO: So he spoke earlier today at the governor's mansion in San Juan and acknowledged that his government had made mistakes in its handling of the death count. And he also significantly said that he is going to adopt this new number 2,975 as the government's official death toll estimate for Hurricane Maria. On top of that, he said that he was going to create a commission to review the report's recommendations and to work to execute them. And then finally, Ari, the governor said that he had begun speaking to architects at the University of Puerto Rico to design a memorial for the hurricane dead, which is something that a lot of people on the island have wanted because they've said that not even having a number and not even knowing how many people had died from the storm had made it really hard to fully grieve them and remember them.
SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Adrian Florido. Thanks, Adrian.
FLORIDO: Thank you, Ari.
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