This week, the government of Puerto Rico took a step many argue it should have taken nearly a year ago: Officials acknowledged that more than 1,400 people died as a result of Hurricane Maria, as opposed to the 64 they’d previously claimed as the official count.
In a report posted online today (August 9), titled “Transformation and Innovation in the Wake of Devastation,” “officials said 1,427 more people died in the last four months of 2017 compared with the same time frame in the previous year,” according to The New York Times.
The report is for Congress, and it accompanies a request for $139 billion in recovery funds. Per The Times:
The final version of the recovery plan being submitted to Congress outlines ambitious projects for Puerto Rico that include major highway renovations, $15 billion for the Department of Education and $26 billion for the energy grid. The government has asked for $6 billion for repair and replacement of public buildings and $3.9 billion for environmental use, according to an announcement from the governor’s office.
Hurricane Maria struck the island on September 20. Puerto Rico experienced a total blackout and a loss of water to half of the homes on the island. In a report released last month, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) admitted that it responded poorly to the devastation caused by the storm—including a failure to move residents into hotel rooms and properly distribute food, water and generators.
As the magnitude of the destruction—and the insufficiency of FEMA’s response— became clear, advocates and officials disagreed with the government’s claim that only 64 people had died. “The government was widely criticized for undercounting the number of people who died on the island as the power outage stretched for months, causing deaths from diabetes and sepsis to soar,” reports The Times. “Many people died from lack of access to hospitals, or because there was no power to run the machines they used to breathe.”
In May, Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rosselló acknowledged at a news conference that this count was likely too low. “We want the real numbers to come out,” he said. “We had a protocol that really was sub-par and we recognize it and now towards the future we want to make sure that it is effective.”
Rosselló also requested that researchers from George Washington University review the government’s death certification process. The results are expected this month. Once they are released, the Puerto Rican government says it will update the official death toll.
On the same day as Rosselló’s press conference in May, Harvard University released a study that found at least 4,645 people died on the island as a result of Maria.
The 2018 hurricane season runs through November 30. It is predicted to have above average activity. Puerto Rico is currently reinforcing its electrical grid and water system in case another severe storm hits the island.