The Most Widely Shared Study of the Year Revealed Hurricane Maria’s Shocking Death Toll

Never forget Puerto Rico.
Never forget Puerto Rico.
Photo: AP

2018 was a year of many scientific discoveries. But the one that the internet cited the most was about Hurricane Maria and the human toll it took on Puerto Rico, according to the Altmetric Top 100, which tracks the top 100 published research articles the media, social media, and policy documents discuss.


The Puerto Rican government originally said only 64 people died during that 2017 hurricane. Everyone knew that was bullshit. So researchers and investigative journalists got to work to uncover how many people actually died. The team behind the most widely cited study of the year—published in the New England Journal of Medicine in May—estimated a death toll closer to 5,000, making Maria the deadliest storm in modern U.S. history.

The study used on-the-ground data from more than 3,000 households across the island to figure out whether anyone in the household had died after the storm and learn about their access to clean water, healthcare, and power. The researchers then extrapolated the estimated number of dead from this samples and compared it to the death rate during the same period in 2016.

Reporting on the study was criticized by some for focusing too much on an exact figure—4,645—which was actually just the mid-point in a broad range of estimated deaths. Other studies that have explored the death count post-Maria found lower estimates: one concluded nearly 3,000 died and another pegged the number at more than 1,000. Different methods lead to different results, but apparently the higher-end estimates this study highlighted caused a stir across the internet.

Altmetric tracked 447 news stories on the study, 51 blog posts, one policy document, nearly 17,000 tweets, and 21 Facebook posts where the study is mentioned. Most of this attention came from the U.S., but people in Canada and Latin America were tweeting about the study, too. Science communicators and scientists were a large portion of the tweeters, but mostly the study was shared by members of the public.

Hurricane Maria was more than a year ago, and things are finally looking up. Travel to the island has bounced back quicker than companies anticipated, per the Chicago Tribune. The Puerto Rican government is finally trying to deal with its shoddy death toll by developing a better process, as part of its independent study on the island’s death toll, for conducting death counts next time (hopefully there’s not a next time). This should also help other countries avoid the same mistakes it made. The storm took a $43 billion impact on the island, but the greatest impact is on the families who’ve lost loved ones—loved ones that their representatives took way too long to acknowledge.

At least the public made a whole lot of noise about it.


Yessenia Funes is climate editor at Atmos Magazine. She loves Earther forever.