- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Puerto Rican Gov. Ricardo Rosselló on Tuesday raised the official death toll for Hurricane Maria from 64 to 2,975, based on a new study he commissioned that found a significant undercount in the original tally, especially among the island’s ill and elderly residents.

Mr. Rosselló also announced that his administration will create a commission to oversee the implementation of recommendations in the study, which was conducted by researchers at the George Washington University’s Milken Institute School of Public Health.

The study, which was released Tuesday, compared the actual number of deaths to an estimate based on historical patterns since 2010. The island’s population dropped by about 8 percent in the six months after last September’s hurricane, the researchers found. The researchers’ estimate of 2,975 deaths more than doubled the government’s estimate of 1,427 sent in a draft report to Congress in June.

According to the study, the Puerto Rican government was ill-prepared for Hurricane Maria, which struck the island as a Category 4 storm on Sept. 20, about two weeks after Hurricane Irma had clipped the northern part of the island as a Category 5 gale. The government experienced a breakdown in communication and a lack of coordination among local, state and federal officials.

“The inadequate preparedness and personnel training for crisis and emergency risk communication, combined with numerous barriers to accurate, timely information and factors that increased rumor generation, ultimately decreased the perceived transparency and credibility of the Government of Puerto Rico,” the study reads.

Island authorities did not do enough to counter misinformation and conflicting reports about the death toll, the study adds. Scant information about the death certification process, differences between direct and indirect deaths, and the faulty reporting process all contributed to the “dissemination of inconsistent information to the public.”

The first phase of the Milken Institute study cost $305,000. The researchers plan to focus on the causes of death in the second phase.

Rep. Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, the ranking Democrat on the House Homeland Security Committee, blamed the Trump administration and the Federal Emergency Management Agency for the soaring number of deaths. He accused them of not doing enough to intervene and of not adequately preparing for this year’s hurricane season, which is underway.

“The Trump Administration has been in denial about the gravity of Hurricane Maria since the storm made landfall last year. President Trump and FEMA still fail to recognize that many still need help from our government,” Mr. Thompson said.

Rep. Nydia Velazquez, New York Democrat, said the new study shows that the federal government failed the people of the U.S. island territory.

“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,” Ms. Velazquez said in a statement.

In its report to Congress in June, the Puerto Rican government presented data showing increases in several illnesses in 2017 that could have been linked to the storm: Cases of sepsis, a serious bloodstream infection usually caused by bacteria, rose from 708 in 2016 to 835 last year. Deaths from diabetes went from 3,151 to 3,250, and deaths from heart illnesses increased from 5,417 to 5,586.

Hurricane Maria has surpassed Hurricane Katrina as the deadliest hurricane to hit the U.S. in the 21st century. The 2005 storm killed 1,833 people when it struck several Gulf states.

⦁ This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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