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Death Toll Higher in Puerto Rico

Disintegrating U.S. and Puerto Rican flags fly atop a roof in the town of Yabucoa eight months after Hurricane Maria struck. Many residents remain without power.
Disintegrating U.S. and Puerto Rican flags fly atop a roof in the town of Yabucoa eight months after Hurricane Maria struck. Many residents remain without power.
—Carlos Giusti/AP
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A new study estimating that more than 4,600 people died as a result of last fall's devastating hurricane in Puerto Rico has reignited anxieties among educators still reeling from the storm's damage to the island's school system.

The study, published last week in the New England Journal of Medicine by researchers from Harvard University and other institutions, offers an estimate far higher than previous tallies, including the official government count of 64—a figure other organizations also had challenged.

Although the study does not break down deaths of school-age children, it estimates that citizens younger than 55 accounted for 5.2 of every 1,000 deaths. Mortality rates for all age groups increased following Hurricane Maria.

The latest research comes as the island's educators prepare for another hurricane season while still recovering from the previous storm, which temporarily shut the doors of about 1,200 schools serving 350,000 public school students.

In February, the education department began a formal needs-assessment of students and teachers to try to determine which schools need help from counselors and social workers in managing trauma triggered by Maria. Based on the assessment, a team of 30 mental-health professionals have been trained to assist.

Still, the formal needs-assessment is not enough to counter the emotional toll, according to Grichelle Toledo, the secretary general of Puerto Rico's teachers' union.

"We need at least two or three [social workers] in each school to impact our communities," Toledo said. "They're trying—they're going to schools—but they're not able to do enough."

The government death count is assumed to be low because of its reliance on death certificates. Every disaster-related death must be confirmed by the Institute of Forensic Sciences, which would require the corpse to be brought to the capital, San Juan, or a medical examiner to travel to examine the body. Deaths resulting from poor conditions following the hurricane, but not directly tied to the storm, were excluded from the official count.

With hurricane season officially beginning June 1, many residents are worried. "There's not enough preparation. A lot of people are still out there with the blue tarps that the Federal Emergency Management Agency gave them [after Hurricane Maria], said Alberto García Moll, a forensic scientist and professor at the Interamerican University of Puerto Rico.

Vol. 37, Issue 34, Page 5

Published in Print: June 6, 2018, as Death Toll Higher in Puerto Rico
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