Newswise — WASHINGTON and SAN JUAN (April 22, 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 that aims to identify how critical buildings performed during the hurricane, as well as 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,” Carlos Santos-Burgoa, a professor of global health at the GW Milken Institute School of Public Health, said. “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.”

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 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,” Pablo Mendez Lazaro, an associate professor of environmental health at the University of Puerto Rico Graduate School of Public Health, said. “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.”

In 2018, 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. 

For more information on the NIST ongoing investigation, please click here.

“Ultimately, 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, not only in Puerto Rico, but across the United States,” Joe Main, NIST’s lead technical investigator for the program, said.

For more information on the 2018 study by Santos-Burgoa and colleagues, click here.