Puerto Rico’s governor raised the U.S. territory’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 aftermath had been severely under-counted.
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. … Yes, I made mistakes. Yes, in hindsight, things could’ve been handled differently.”
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. Rossello acknowledged Puerto Rico remains vulnerable to another major storm. He said the government has improved its communication systems and established a network to distribute food and medicine, but he noted that there are still 60,000 homes without a proper roof and that the power grid is still unstable.
“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.