07:21 GMT12 May 2021
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    The Puerto Rican government acknowledged Thursday in a report submitted to the US Congress that the death toll from 2017's Hurricane Maria was much, much higher than the original count of 64. Like, 21 times higher.

    In the report, which focuses on a $139 billion reconstruction plan for the Island of Enchantment, the Puerto Rican government admits that in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, at least 1,427 people died. The latest figure offered by authorities comes from death registry statistics that were released to officials two months ago, according to the New York Times.

    "Although the official death count from the Puerto Rico Department of Public Safety was initially 64, the toll appears to be much higher," the document, titled "Transformation and Innovation in the Wake of Devastation," notes.

    "According to initial reports, 64 lives were lost. That estimate was later revised to 1,427."

    ​Adriana Garriga-López, department chair and associate professor of anthropology at Kalamazoo College, told Radio Sputnik's Loud & Clear on Thursday that what's most surprising what it took for the real figure to emerge.

    "The number is not really surprising," Garriga-López told host John Kiriakou. "What's surprising is that it came out because CNN and the Centro de Periodismo Investigativo here in Puerto Rico sued the government for the documents that actually showed how many people had been recorded as fatalities directly relating from the storm, Hurricane Maria, in the four months after."

    Despite previous studies contradicting the government's figures, including a Harvard study that estimated the death toll could range from anywhere between 793 to 8,498, this is the first time that the government itself has indicated that its previous number was incorrect.

    The Harvard study, published in May, deemed Puerto Rico's death toll of 64 a "substantial underestimate."

    "These numbers… underscore the inattention of the US government to the frail infrastructure of Puerto Rico," the authors concluded. The study found that the majority of deaths that took place after Maria made landfall last September were mostly related to residents' lack of access to health care, as the island's roads were rendered impassable by the storm. The island's crippled power grid also contributed to the death toll, with health care providers unable to run life-saving machines for patients.

    It should be noted that the median death toll offered by the study was listed as 4,645, a number which many Puerto Ricans have accepted as the official count, according to Garriga-López.

    "We may never arrive at a final number where we can all agree," she told Kiriakou. "We may never have that kind of public consensus, but the Puerto Rican people in general have already arrived at a consensus that was adopted from the median number in that Harvard study, which was 4,645."

    "Even if it's not… the ultimately correct number, that number has already served as a kind of rallying cry, as well as a place to mourn," she added.

    In response to the Harvard team's findings, Carlos R. Mercader, executive director of the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration, released a statement saying, "we look forward to analyzing it."

    "As the world knows, the magnitude of this tragic disaster caused by Hurricane Maria resulted in many fatalities. We have always expected the number to be higher than what was previously reported," Mercader noted.

    Since authorities in Puerto Rico have commissioned a study from George Washington University to determine the number of fatalities caused by Hurricane Maria, the official death toll won't be updated until after it has concluded.

    To Garriga-López, the decision to hold off on updating the count is nothing more than officials trying to bide their time. "It's clear that they're relying on a kind of scholarly ambiguity in the question of how one evaluates the mass casualties from the disaster… they're relying on that ambiguity in order to play a political game around government ineptitude, inadequacy and a lack of response to the real need of people in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria," she said.

    The George Washington University study is expected to be published in a matter of weeks, according to reports.

    The views and opinions expressed in the article do not necessarily reflect those of Sputnik.


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