The U.S. government’s abject failure to come to Puerto Rico’s aid in the wake of Hurricane Maria has been well-documented. But in a preliminary draft of a report to Congress stressing the need for more federal aid to the island, the government of Puerto Rico finally acknowledged what neither it nor the Trump administration has previously confirmed: over 1,400 people died as a result of the hurricane, over twenty times the government’s official number of 64.
The New York Times reports:
Hurricane Maria cut through the island on Sept. 20, knocking out power and initially killing about a dozen people. The government’s official count eventually swelled to 64, as more people died from suicide, lack of access to health care and other factors. The number has not changed despite several academic assessments that official death certificates did not come close to tallying the storm’s fatal toll.
But in a draft of a report to Congress requesting $139 billion in recovery funds, scheduled for official release on Thursday, the Puerto Rican government admits that 1,427 more people died in the last four months of 2017 compared with the same time frame in the previous year. The figures came from death registry statistics that were released in June, but which were never publicly acknowledged by officials on the island.
“Although the official death count from the Puerto Rico Department of Public Safety was initially 64, the toll appears to be much higher,” page 28 of the draft read, adding in another section: “According to initial reports, 64 lives were lost. That estimate was later revised to 1,427.” The report also said that in the aftermath of the hurricane, estimates of deaths ranged from 800 to 8,500 “from delayed or interrupted health care,” a reference to a July study in the New England Journal of Medicine.
All of this language appears to have been scrubbed from the report that’s currently online, but it can be found in the Wayback Machine archive of the report dated to August 8. Times reporter Frances Robles tweeted on Tuesday night that she had seen the final language of the report and that “the government hedges its language a bit,” and that the wording she read came from the “July 9 draft version of this recovery report that the government released for comments,” adding that “the official version is supposed to be released tomorrow.”
The report currently listed at the URL, while different, is still labeled as a July 9 “preliminary report for public comment.” We’ve reached out to the Puerto Rican government to ask whether the language of the report was altered in anticipation of or as a response to the Times story, and will update with any response we receive.
In December, the Times reported that, in contradiction of the government’s official death count of 64, 1,052 people more people than usual had died across the island than in years past. In June, the Puerto Rican government released data saying there were 1,427 more deaths between September and December 2017 than the average number of deaths over the same four-month period in the preceding four years. As the Times notes, however, the draft report is the first time Puerto Rican officials have publicly acknowledged these figures from their own government.
And although the language has been removed from the draft report, Puerto Rico officials still stand by the estimate. “We definitely acknowledge this is a realistic estimate,” Pedro Cerame, a spokesman for the Puerto Rican government’s Federal Affairs Administration, told the Times. “We don’t want to say it out loud or publicize it as an official number. The official number [from a George Washington University study commissioned by the Puerto Rican government] 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.”
During his infamous visit to Puerto Rico last October, President Donald Trump said that Puerto Ricans should be “very proud” of the death toll, which at the time was officially 16, as opposed to “a real catastrophe like [Hurricane Katrina]” where “hundreds and hundreds of people died.” FEMA’s official death toll for Katrina was 1,833.
We’ve reached out to the White House for comment, and will update with any response we receive.