Survey Launched to Learn More about Deaths Tied to Hurricane Maria

Scientists at the University of Puerto Rico and the George Washington University conduct an in-depth survey with those who lost a loved one in the aftermath of the deadly hurricane.

April 23, 2021

Researchers at the George Washington University and the University of Puerto Rico will launch a first-of-its-kind survey to investigate the causes of deaths that occurred during the first two weeks after Hurricane Maria. The fact-finding mission will help identify the factors and socio-environmental conditions that led to more than 1,700 deaths in the immediate aftermath of the storm.

The survey is part of a larger investigation developed by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) that aims to identify how critical buildings performed during the hurricane and how emergency communications systems worked following the storm. Ultimately, the researchers hope to make recommendations that would help keep residents of Puerto Rico and in coastal areas of the United States safe during and after extreme weather events.

“We know that families all over Puerto Rico still face ongoing pain from the loss of so many loved ones. Our 2018 study helped shed some light on the causes of death, but we are now hoping that relatives, close friends and others will help us by participating in this survey,” said Carlos Santos-Burgoa, a professor of global health at the GW Milken Institute School of Public Health. “Our fact-finding mission cannot bring back the lives that were lost as a result of this horrific storm, but it can help us save lives in the future.”

In 2018, Dr. Santos-Burgoa and a team from GW and the University of Puerto Rico published a report finding an estimated 2,975 excess deaths in Puerto Rico during a six-month period after Hurricane Maria.

The team designed the survey to learn more about the direct and indirect deaths that occurred in the first two weeks after Hurricane Maria. Investigators from the University of Puerto Rico-Medical Sciences Campus will contact almost 1,700 people who can provide information on individuals who died in Puerto Rico in the immediate aftermath of the storm. Investigators will ask family members and others a series of questions aimed at finding the socio-environmental conditions that might have contributed to a death, including building failures, damaged roads that blocked access to a hospital or a lack of power to run home medical equipment.

The survey takes about 45 minutes to complete. All individual answers will be kept confidential. The data from the survey will be aggregated and used in a final report that will include recommendations aimed at improving building codes and other standards that could prevent injuries and deaths in the future.

“By participating in the survey and telling us your story, our research team should be able to identify stressors suffered in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria that could be associated with excess mortality in Puerto Rico,” said Pablo Mendez Lazaro, an associate professor of environmental health at the University of Puerto Rico Graduate School of Public Health. “All your experiences, barriers, knowledge, perspective, risks and vulnerabilities are crucial, and your story will be useful to health officers, decision makers, emergency preparedness personnel and Puerto Rico residents, as it helps to prepare for and to mitigate the potential effects of hurricanes.” 

Joe Main, NIST’s lead technical investigator for the program, said that the work in the project would benefit not only residents of Puerto Rico but also other areas of the United States.

“Ultimately,” he said, “the goal of the NIST Hurricane Maria investigation is to learn from the failures that occurred and to recommend improvements to building codes, standards and practices that would make communities more resilient to hurricanes and other hazards in the future.” 

Learning & Research


Milken Institute SPH Researchers Reflect on ‘Groundbreaking’ Hurricane Maria Study

April 08, 2021

The study identified 2,975 excess deaths in Puerto Rico in the months following the disaster and helped to bring closure to families on the island.

Poor, Elderly Puerto Ricans Faced Risk of Dying in the Six Months after Hurricane Maria

October 12, 2018

A Milken Institute SPH study advocates for a standardized method of accounting for deaths after natural disasters.

GW Researchers: 2,975 Excess Deaths Linked to Hurricane Maria

August 29, 2018

The risk of dying in the six months following the devastating storm was highest for Puerto Ricans living in the poorest municipalities.