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Americares President and CEO Michael J. Nyenhuis leads a health-focused relief and development organization that saves lives and improves health for people affected by poverty or disaster.
This week’s deeply saddening news about Hurricane Maria’s death toll in Puerto Rico is not a surprise. In a report published May 29, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health researchers say it is likely that 5,000 people died as a result of the September 2017 storm. The research results are in line with other projections in one sense: They dwarf the official estimate of 64 deaths.
In the weeks and months after Hurricane Maria, Americares medical teams delivered care to homebound patients.
Photo by William Vazquez.
Americares responds to an average of 30 disasters every year and our emergency response teams witness what happens in the days, weeks and months after a catastrophe. We know that the full impact is always greater than is known. Too many effects are hidden. Too much impact is underreported. Far too many consequences never come to light.
After surveying more than 3,000 local families about the impact of the storm and extrapolating from that data, Harvard researchers have estimated a death toll between about 800 and 8,500 people. Admittedly, that’s a wide range. But even the lowest number is of grave concern. The Harvard research confirms that in Puerto Rico, people continued to suffer as time passed: One-third of the deaths were attributed to delayed or interrupted health care.
The conclusions of this study tell me two things.
First, it is essential to couple immediate and timely disaster response actions with thorough and sustained recovery work. Though rising waters, fallen trees, blown-off roofs and crumbled hillsides may result in tragic deaths immediately, the larger impact comes in the following days and weeks, through the loss of essential services such as electricity, water, health care and the trauma of the experience itself.
Americares medical teams set up in communities cut off from health services, this one in an abandoned gas station near Aguada.
Second, this research underscores the importance of the work Americares, other relief organizations, government agencies and volunteer and community groups have done in Puerto Rico to deliver aid and restore services as quickly as possible. There’s no doubt that our efforts kept the death toll from rising even higher. The airplane loads of essential medicines Americares distributed across the island saved lives. The emergency medical teams Americares dispatched to remote communities arrested the impact of acute illness and chronic conditions. The funding we provided to health centers for immediate repairs opened doors and restored services. The training we have done to address stress, trauma and mental health helped keep those issues from becoming deadly among many.
I have no doubt the numbers would be even more staggering without this critical work by our team, and so many others.
Americares team in Puerto Rico will continue working with the health system and communities to support a full recovery from Maria, and — importantly — prepare for the next disaster. That is of utmost importance because the official Atlantic hurricane season begins June 1. The preparation we do now, and the work we do to improve both response and recovery efforts, will save lives and limit the number of deaths during and after the next disaster.
In the hills near Utuado, hurricane survivor Andy told me about the night of the hurricane, when a mudslide tore through his neighborhood. Andy was one of more than 1,700 patients Americares emergency medical teams treated after Hurricane Maria.