Puerto Rico quietly moves to update Hurricane Maria death toll from 64 to 1,427

Draft report submitted to Congress outlining a recovery plan brings the government closer to official confirmation of number

More than 1,400 people in Puerto Rico were killed by Hurricane Maria, the US territory’s government said this week, as it inches closer to officially updating the death toll from 64 people.

In a draft report submitted to Congress this week outlining a recovery plan for the island, where Maria made landfall on 20 September, the government said there were 1,427 more deaths in the four months after the hurricane than normal.

The category 4 hurricane caused an island-wide power outage and shut down nearly every hospital on the island. Some people are still waiting for their electricity to be restored and the island’s 3.4 million residents have had to confront a devastating mental health crisis.

Puerto Rico’s government first released the 1,427 number in June, in the face of three lawsuits demanding more data on the death toll. That report, however, did not indicate whether those deaths were connected to Maria and its aftermath.

The government has said it expects the death toll to be higher than the 64 people it first reported in December. The report this week brings the government a step closer to an official confirmation of the death toll.

“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. “On June 13, the government of Puerto Rico revealed that there were 1,427 more deaths in the four months after the hurricanes than normal (based on the previous four years), and it will update the official count after a George Washington University study is completed.”

“We definitely acknowledge this is a realistic estimate,” a spokesman for the Puerto Rico’s federal affairs administration, Pedro Cerame, told the New York Times about this week’s report. “We don’t want to say it out loud or publicize it as an official number. The official number will come, and it could be close. But until we see the study, and have the accuracy, we won’t be able to recognize the number as official.”

It is the latest update in a fraught saga led by journalists, activists and academics to get the government to officially acknowledge the scale of devastation.

As early as 28 September, the local investigative journalism project Centro de Periodismo Investigativo (CPI) said the storm’s toll was likely hundreds higher than the government had reported. CPI updated its report in December to say that the actual death toll exceeded 1,000 people. A Harvard study published in May estimated that there were up to 4,600 more deaths than usual in the three months following the hurricane.

In the report, Puerto Rico’s government also requests $139bn in recovery funds.

During Donald Trump’s first visit to Puerto Rico in October, he said: “I hate to tell you, Puerto Rico, but you’ve thrown our budget a little out of whack. But that’s fine because we’ve saved a lot of lives.”


Amanda Holpuch in New York

The GuardianTramp

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