How many did Hurricane Irma really kill?

Category: Best data-driven reporting (small and large newsrooms)

Country/area: British Virgin Islands

Organisation: The BVI Beacon

Organisation size: Small

Publication date: 25/07/2019

Credit: Freeman Rogers

Project description:

Four people died on the day Hurricane Irma devastated the British Virgin Islands in 2017, and that number quickly became the government’s official death toll. However, as the population struggled to recover in dangerous living conditions, other residents seemed to be dying at an alarming rate. By comparing mortality data from the previous decade to the post-storm period, this project was able to show that Irma’s total toll was closer to 34. In a population of about 30,000, this difference was shocking, and it had previously gone unreported.

Impact reached:

At a time when climate change threatens more frequent and more intense hurricanes, the project showed that the loss of life from a major storm in the BVI was about eight times higher than the official death toll reported by the government and repeated by the media. This discovery, in turn, suggested that the human cost of climate-change disasters in the region and further abroad is likely to be much higher than previously thought.  

Locally, the project also highlighted the BVI government’s failure to consider post-disaster mortality in the official death toll, as well as highlighting other problems with the existing methods for recording causes of death. Additionally, it exposed the human cost of failures in the government response in areas including medical services, shelter, medicines, relief supplies and transportation. As the project showed, many post-storm deaths appeared to have been a direct result of such failures.

Many readers also reported that the project brought closure. They had suspected that a loved one’s death was a direct result of Irma, and they wondered why it hadn’t been officially designated as such. By reading others’ stories and the article’s analysis, they learned they were not alone. 

Finally, the project, taken with others like it in Puerto Rico and other countries, helped highlight the urgent need for an international standard for measuring disaster mortality that takes into account indirect long-term deaths. A consistent methodology is essential if the world is to properly understand the real cost of disasters in the age of climate change — and to properly prepare for them.


Techniques/technologies used:

The project started with shoe-leather reporting and then progressed to data analysis using various programs.

At the BVI Civil Registry, post-storm data had to be copied by hand out of the death register. Then it was entered into Microsoft Excel, which was used in conjunction with Tableau and other visualization programs to analyze and graph death numbers, causes, ages, and other factors in order to better understand the possible reasons for post-hurricane deaths.

The most important analysis, however, focused on historical comparisons: The post-storm numbers were compared to aggregated data from the previous decade. In this manner, we were able to estimate a number of people who had died as an indirect result of the storm. Public health experts confirmed that this method is a reasonable approach for estimating the total toll of a disaster.

Finally, the data visualization programmes were used to present the information in an easily understood format in a series of graphs that we published in our print and online editions.

What was the hardest part of this project?

The hardest part was carrying out such a lengthy investigation with limited resources at a time when the islands were still struggling to recover from the devastation of Hurricane Irma. With the trauma so fresh in the community’s mind, many residents were unwilling to talk about their loved one’s deaths. Additionally, many were struggling on a day-to-day basis to meet their basic needs. Because communications were patchy, it was also difficult to track down family members for interviews.

There were personal challenges as well. Irma destroyed our newspaper’s office as well as the homes of all our reporters, some of whom moved away. As a result, the newspaper has been short-staffed (with only two to three reporters during the period of the investigation) and struggling financially since the storm. Carrying out even day-to-day reporting has been difficult, let alone a lengthy investigation.

The lack of digital records at the Civil Registry also posed a challenge: The death registry is only on paper, and all of the numbers had to be copied out by hand on paper. Additionally, in the course of copying the data, errors were discovered in the register that the agency then had to investigate and correct. It seem that these errors were largely a result of the chaos that ensued after the hurricane.


What can others learn from this project?

The project has wide-ranging implications for assessing post-disaster mortality. Currently, there is no international standard for calculating a disaster’s death toll, and post-disaster deaths, though common, often go uncounted. This issue has particular relevance in the Caribbean, which in the age of climate change is facing disasters including larger and more intense hurricanes, flooding and drought, as well as non-climate-related disasters like volcanoes, earthquakes and tsunamis.

The project, then, highlights the importance of establishing an international standard for assessing death tolls. Only then can the impact of disasters in different locations be properly understood, compared and responded to at the international level. 

For policymakers, aid organisations, and journalists, there is also much to learn about the longer term impacts of disasters. Too often, media coverage focuses on a disaster only for a short period. But the impacts can linger for weeks, months and even years after coverage fades — in the case of Irma, even while the great majority of victims were still dying. To fully understand climate change, the world needs to have a much clearer understanding of the long-term impacts of the disasters it brings.

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