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Hurricane death toll estimate in Puerto Rico soars to nearly 3,000

Researchers said the original count was low in part because doctors were not trained in how to classify deaths after a disaster.

Puerto Rico has raised the official death toll from Hurricane Maria from 64 to 2,975 after an independent study found the number of people who died in the aftermath was severely undercounted.

The new estimate of nearly 3,000 dead in the six months after Maria devastated the US territory in September 2017 and knocked out the electrical grid was made by researchers with the Milken Institute School of Public Health at George Washington University.

The number of dead has political implications for the Trump administration, which was accused of responding half-heartedly to the disaster.

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Donald Trump had marvelled over the small loss of life (Evan Vucci/AP)

“We never anticipated a scenario of zero communication, zero energy, zero highway access,” governor 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 register of people vulnerable to the next hurricane, such as the elderly, the bedridden and kidney dialysis patients.

Mr Rossello acknowledged Puerto Rico remains vulnerable to another major storm. He said the island’s government has improved its communication systems and established a network to distribute food and medicine, but there are still 60,000 homes without a proper roof and the power grid is still unstable.

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Ricardo Rossello said ‘things could’ve been handled differently’ (Carlos Giusti/AP)

“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.

The toll 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.

The George Washington researchers said the official count from the September 20 hurricane was low in part because doctors were not trained in how to classify deaths after a disaster.

The number of deaths from September 2017 to February 2018 was 22% higher than the same period in previous years, Ms Goldman said.

Shortly after the storm, when the official death toll stood at 16, President Donald Trump marvelled over the small loss of life compared with “a real catastrophe like Katrina”.

Hurricane Katrina, which struck New Orleans in 2005, was directly responsible for about 1,200 deaths, according to the National Hurricane Centre. That does not include indirect deaths of the sort the George Washington researchers counted in Puerto Rico.

The White House issued a statement on Tuesday noting that it sent 12,000 personnel to Puerto Rico for response and recovery efforts, and said it would continue to support the island’s government and its communities in their recovery for years to come.

“The American people, including those grieving the loss of a loved one, deserve no less. The president remains proud of all of the work the federal family undertook to help our fellow citizens in Puerto Rico,” it said.

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