Published 4:19 p.m. UTC Aug 9, 2018
The Puerto Rican government acknowledged Thursday that the death toll from Hurricane Maria may have risen to more than 1,400 – an estimate many times higher than the official count it’s clung to for months.
In a draft report to Congress posted online, the government claimed the revised number of deaths should be 1,427, based on public health records. It also claimed 527,000 homeowners reported damage to their homes and around 40 schools permanently closed due to structural damage from the storm.
“Although the official death count from the Puerto Rico Department of Public Safety was initially 64, the toll appears to be much higher,” the report said.
The 411-page document, tilted “Transformation and Innovation in the Wake of Devastation: An Economic and Disaster Recovery Plan for Puerto Rico,” laid out specific plans the government hopes to implement post-Maria and estimated it will need about $125 billion over the next decade to rebuild. So far, around $35 billion in federal disaster recovery funds have been allocated for Puerto Rico.
The acknowledgement of greater fatalities is significant because it places Maria in the category of historic deadly hurricanes, such as Hurricane Katrina, which claimed 1,800 lives after slamming into the Gulf Coast in 2005, said George Haddow, a senior fellow at Tulane University’s Disaster Resilience Leadership Academy and a former senior FEMA official in the Clinton administration.
The higher death count is also key to rebuilding Puerto Rico to sustain new massive storms, he said.
“The number of people who died and how they died should play a role in how they rebuild and how they enact hazard mitigation risk-reduction measures so a similar death toll doesn’t occur next time a similar hurricane hits the island,” Haddow said.
The Puerto Rican government has been criticized for underplaying the number of deaths from the Category 4 storm, which cut through the middle of the island on Sept. 20, causing widespread destruction and plunging the island into a months-long blackout.
A New York Times analysis of island records estimated the death toll to be around 1,052. In May, a Harvard University study estimated that anywhere between 800 and 8,500 people died for reasons related to Hurricane Maria.
Gov. Ricardo Rosselló has acknowledged that the official count of 64 was likely low but hesitated to confirm a higher count until further studies were completed. The government commissioned George Washington University to conduct a more thorough study, due for release this month.
Besides those who died in the immediate fury and floods of the storm, scores of others died when they weren’t able to access hospitals due to impassable roads, couldn’t plug in dialysis machines when the island went dark or because of the stress that clouded the island in the chaotic aftermath of the storm.
The low official death count has sparked protests in San Juan and hindered the recovery process on the island. Earlier this year, Puerto Ricans laid thousands of pairs of shoes outside the island’s Capitol building to represent the uncounted dead.
How to classify hurricane-related deaths has been debated since the storm struck 10 months ago. Two bills were introduced in Congress in June in an attempt to establish a new standard for counting deaths after a natural disaster.
Contributing: Associated Press
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