Washington, Aug 29 (IANS) Puerto Rican officials now say 2,975 people died following Hurricane Maria — a devastating storm that struck the US island territory in September 2017. The White House concurred.
The revised death toll is nearly 50 times the previous estimate of 64. The latest findings were made in a report by experts from George Washington University, which Governor Ricardo Rossello commissioned.
The long-awaited independent investigation findings have been “accepted”, the BBC reported.
“I’m giving an order to update the official number of deaths to 2,975,” Rossello said at a press conference on Tuesday. “Although this is an estimate, it has a scientific basis.”
In a statement, the White House said the federal government supported the governor’s efforts to “ensure a full accountability and transparency of fatalities” in the 2017 hurricane.
When asked why his government was unable to recognise a higher death toll at the time, Rossello replied: “I am not perfect. I make mistakes. Now, hindsight tends to be 20-20.”
He echoed one finding in the report that doctors “lacked awareness” on how to appropriately certify deaths attributed to natural disasters.
“The responsibility for adjudicating the cause of deaths rested with the doctors,” Rossello told El Nuevo Dia, the island’s most circulated paper. “But unfortunately there was no formal process to prepare them for this kind of devastation.
“At that moment, (64) that was the number (of deceased) that we had and today we have the evidence which indicates the number was definitely higher.”
The government’s initial number was arrived at by counting those crushed by collapsing structures, drowned and hit by flying debris. Although some experts estimated it to be as many as 4,600 deaths in the wake of the disaster.
Puerto Rico has struggled to repair its infrastructure and power grid since the storm, and is asking US Congress for $139bn in recovery funds.
President Donald Trump was criticised for praising the federal response to the hurricane-ravaged island in the weeks following the storm.
Critics accused him of showing more concern for residents in Texas and Florida after they were hit by hurricanes.
The authorities have faced nearly a year of criticism for underreporting the true toll of Maria — the most powerful storm to hit the region in nearly 90 years, the BBC said.