The discrepancy between the government's official figures eight months after the hurricane and the Harvard study highlights, according to statistics and experts, the ongoing data reliability issues in Puerto Rico.
The official death toll of 64 is based mainly on police department numbers that are responsible only for hurricane-related deaths, such as a tree that falls on a house during the storm and kills a resident, said Mario Marazzi, managing director of Puerto Rico Institute of Statistics. But statisticians like Marazzi and the authors of the Harvard study argue that it's important to look at various data that can explain indirect deaths caused by medical complications associated with lack of power.
"There is a CDC [Center for Disease Control] guideline for disasters that defines what is directly related to deaths and indirectly related to catastrophic deaths, and we have seen that these were not properly applied in Puerto Rico, "said Satchit Balsari, one of the authors of the Harvard study, to a question from NBC News during a press conference.
Before Tuesday, the study was released, with some reports from investigative journalists from Puerto Rico and major US news organizations released a few months ago that had increased the death toll to nearly 1,000, still far higher than the official death toll the government.
On Tuesday, Secretary of Public Security of Puerto Rico, Héctor Pesquera, told reporters that the Harvard study is based on a poll. "It's not based on scientific data," he said, adding that he had not studied the Harvard report.
But Caroline Buckee, a Harvard researcher and one of the authors of the report, told reporters that the study, where field researchers attended More than 3,000 households in Puerto Rico in three weeks with a budget of about $ 50,000, helped to close crucial gaps in the households of the island.
"This shows that you can get free information during a disaster in a cost-effective way that could be useful for governments," said Buckee.
One of the Biggest Data Wards Harvard Researchers Discovered The attempt to count the hurricane death toll was the way death records were issued during hurricane aftermath.
"There must be better education to count hurricane-related deaths – these certificates – it's not like a regular death certificate," Balsari said.
This is not the first time that researchers raise concerns over issuing death certificates in Puerto Rico. In 2010, the Puerto Rico Institute for Statistics published a report on the mortality rate of the island. In it, the institute noted that there were errors in identifying causes of death in such certificates.
Researchers also point out that limiting data that can be used, shared and examined after a disaster hinders recovery efforts from a more comprehensive view of the local situation.
"If there is no clear data available, we need more time to know what the Post-Mary reality is, if people do not have clear information, people will die," Marazzi told NBC News. "You lose much credibility and time to debate in which study, this is the way the scientific process works, you get information with different kinds of methods, and you get closer to the truth instead of rejecting every part of it "We Must Accept It."
The institute overseeing Marazzi was created as an autonomous agency to ensure accurate data collection regardless of political and government pressures in Puerto Rico. But the government deprives the Institute of its independence, as it is consolidated under a government agency, despite the swift criticism of scientists, interest groups and legislators – including the American Statistical Association and 15 members of the US Congress, who expressed in a letter bipartisan support for the independence of PRIS and Puerto Rico's "need for public, independent and unbiased data".
For many islanders, the number of deaths in the Harvard study more than 70 times the official death count was a confirmation of what they have been saying all the time.
"There is much, much more," said Pedro Lozada, 76, a resident of Caguas, who witnessed the death of his wife Consuelo Morán and his 50-year-old son, Miguel Lozada Morán, who had a special need and both had a heart attack after the hurricane and had no access to a functioning hospital
"Where was the power? Where was the help?" Lozada said.
The mayor of San Juan, Carmen Yulin Cruz, who was criticized as early as November when she suggested that the death toll could range in the hundreds, said, "That's what I'm screaming about above."
Cayey's mayor, Ortiz Velázquez, recalled being "abandoned and desperate" when he and others were concerned about the death rate with the island's officials.
"We warned them, Harvard publishes a study that confirms what we've seen and they still deny it," he said.
During the Harvard Study It's only an estimate – the upcoming epidemiological study by George Washington University examines all deaths after Hurricane Maria – their authors said that comprehensive estimates could help governments better address future disasters. Puerto Rico's hurricane season officially begins on Friday.
Nicole Acevedo reported from New York and Natalie Valdés from Puerto Rico.
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