The Puerto Rican government is now admitting that more than 1,400 people likely died from Hurricane Maria, a significant increase over the previous official death toll of 64. “According to initial reports, 64 lives were lost. That estimate was later revised to 1,427,” concludes a draft report to Congress requesting billions of dollars in recovery aid, which the government of Puerto Rico scheduled for an official release on Thursday. The new death count is still lower than the 4,645 deaths estimated by Harvard University researchers in a May study that integrated elements like interrupted health care, electricity and shuttered hospitals The number could still rise. In February, months before the Harvard study was published in the New England Journal of Medicine, Puerto Rico’s governor commissioned a team at George Washington University to lead an in-depth review. In the report posted online Thursday, the authors noted that the GW study is still in progress, and that the official count will be updated once it is completed.
“We definitely acknowledge this is a realistic estimate,” Pedro Cerame, a spokesman for the Puerto Rican government’s Federal Affairs Administration, told the New York Times. “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.” The new death toll comes from death registry statistics that officials released in June but didn’t publicly acknowledge, according to the Times. The island has been in a state of disrepair since the hurricane touched its shores last September. The government is in the process shutting down hundreds of schools, and in July, there were still 1,000 households without electricity after the hurricane knocked out the island’s aging power grid, according to The Guardian. More than 100,000 Puerto Ricans have fled to the mainland United States. Puerto Rico is now requesting $139 billion from legislators to fix its problems. Specifically, officials want $15 billion for Puerto Rico’s Department of Education, $26 billion to improve its energy grid, $6 billion to repair and replace public buildings and $3.9 billion for environmental use. Earlier government estimates regarding the total cost of recovery were closer to $94 billion. “With the 2018 hurricane season under way as this plan is being finalized, there is also a critical and immediate need to prepare infrastructure and people to weather another emergency,” the report said.
Cover image: Barbed wire is placed around a fence next to five refrigerated shipping containers containing unclaimed bodies, parked in an open parking lot next to the Puerto Rico Forensic Institute in San Juan, on June 11, 2018. Puerto Rico's morgue is overflowing with unclaimed bodies, the result of budget cutbacks in the US territory since last year's devastating Hurricane Maria. The bodies of 307 people are now being kept in the morgue and in four refrigerated containers in a nearby lot, the authorities said. RICARDO ARDUENGO/AFP/Getty Images.