Just as the 2018 hurricane season is set to begin June 1st, a new study shows the Puerto Rico death toll from Hurricane Maria last September could be substantially higher than previous estimates.
The Harvard University-led research, published this week in the New England Journal of Medicine, estimates the "excess" death toll in the three months following Maria at 4,645 people, more than 70 times the official government estimate of 64 people.
At least one independent expert has questioned the new estimate, which looks at how many people died in the months following the hurricane who would not have otherwise died.
"This estimate could be off by thousands-easily," said Dr. Donald Berry, a professor of biostatistics at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center.
Still, ministries like World Vision have long thought that the government's official count was low. Erin Campbell, a member of World Vision's Hurricane Maria response team, told CBN News, "We had discussed as early as October that the official death count was insufficient."
Campbell says a greater number of deaths than the government's original count makes sense as so many Puerto Ricans lacked power and access to medical services in the months following the storm.
"Oftentimes during a natural disaster some of the greatest impact can be felt in the days and weeks after the storm," she said, "when people are both in need of clean water, food and shelter and are also extremely hard to reach." World Vision raised more than $4 million to help 100,000 people in the aftermath of Maria.
Jeff Nene, a spokesman for the faith-based humanitarian organization Convoy of Hope, said the new report is helping to reenergize Convoy's mission in Puerto Rico.
"We feel like we had a very strong response to Hurricane Maria," he told CBN News, noting that more than 6 million emergency meals were served and close to half a million people were helped by Convoy.
David Melber, president of the Southern Baptist's humanitarian organization Send Relief, said he's sad to hear the report but encouraged that it will generate more interest in the ongoing needs of the island.
"We're glad for the attention," he told CBN News, "that hopefully will spur a continued response effort going forward."
Puerto Rico: Still Recovering from Maria
As the new hurricane season approaches, Melber and Nene say many homes still need a roof. "It's safe to say there's still tens of thousands of homes that have a tarp for a roof," Melber said.
It's why the Southern Baptists and groups like Convoy of Hope are continuing to send construction teams to the island. Nene said that Convoy has a two-year commitment to Puerto Rico and is focused on rebuilding as well as food and water.
Samaritan's Purse is also focused on re-building but is supplying materials and partnering with local churches to provide the manual labor.
Many faith-based groups have also begun to prepare for the new hurricane season.
Send Relief has positioned a variety of supplies on the island to help its 70 or more churches be able to minister in the first week after a disaster.
"We have food, water filtration, water, generators, chain saws, propane fuel, cooking equipment - the most basic things you would need to restore transportation and make sure people have food and water," said Melber.
Send Relief decided to ship the supplies ahead of any potential hurricane to avoid the difficulties in shipping that happened after Maria.