People sit at a home lit by a generator, as surrounding homes remain dark, more than two weeks after Hurricane Maria hit the island, on 7 October 2017 in San Isidro, Puerto Rico. Photo: Mario Tama / Getty Images

By Danica Coto
28 August 2018

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) – Puerto Rico’s governor raised the island’s official death toll from Hurricane Maria from 64 to 2,975 on Tuesday after an independent study found that the number of people who succumbed in the desperate, sweltering months after the storm had been severely undercounted.

The new estimate of nearly 3,000 dead in the six months after Maria devastated the island in September 2017 and knocked out the entire electrical grid was made by researchers with the Milken Institute School of Public Health at George Washington University.

“We never anticipated a scenario of zero communication, zero energy, zero highway access,” Gov. Ricardo Rossello told reporters. “I think the lesson is to anticipate the worst.”

He said he is creating a commission to study the hurricane response, and a registry of people vulnerable to the next hurricane, such as the elderly, the bedridden and kidney dialysis patients.

“A lesson from this is that efforts for assistance and recovery need to focus as much as possible on lower-income areas, on people who are older, who are more vulnerable,” said Lynn Goldman, dean of the Milken institute.

Tuesday’s finding is almost twice the government’s previous estimate, included in a recent report to Congress, that there were 1,427 more deaths than normal in the three months after the storm. […]

The number of dead has political implications for the Trump administration, which was accused of responding half-heartedly to the disaster. Shortly after the storm, when the official death toll stood at 16, President Donald Trump marveled over the small loss of life compared to that of “a real catastrophe like Katrina.”

Hurricane Katrina, which struck New Orleans in 2005, was directly responsible for about 1,200 deaths, according to the National Hurricane Center. That does not include indirect deaths of the sort the George Washington researchers counted in Puerto Rico.

Rep. Nydia Velazquez, a New York Democrat, said the report shows the U.S. government failed the people of Puerto Rico.

“These numbers are only the latest to underscore that the federal response to the hurricanes was disastrously inadequate and, as a result, thousands of our fellow American citizens lost their lives,” she said in a statement. […]

Bethzaida Rosado said government and health care officials were not prepared for the storm, and she is still angry her 76-year-old mother died because oxygen tanks were not available on the island after the hurricane.

“Do you know what it’s like to see your mother run out of oxygen?” she said. “I don’t wish that on anyone.”

Months ago, the Rossello administration stopped updating its official death toll at 64 and ordered the independent investigation amid suspicions the dead were substantially undercounted. [more]

Hurricane’s death toll in Puerto Rico put at nearly 3,000

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