Skip to main content

Officials Finally Acknowledged Hurricane Maria's Higher Death Toll. What Else Did They Get Wrong?

For months, Governor of Puerto Rico Ricardo Rosselló refused to admit his government might have undercounted—and this is not the only spurious claim made since the disaster.
The remnants of a destroyed home stand more than two weeks after Hurricane Maria hit the island on October 6th, 2017, in Morovis, Puerto Rico.

The remnants of a destroyed home stand more than two weeks after Hurricane Maria hit the island on October 6th, 2017, in Morovis, Puerto Rico.

The Puerto Rican government officially acknowledged that more than 1,400 people died in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in a report to Congress released Thursday.

The new death toll is 20 times higher than the government's initial count, which Governor Ricardo Rosselló had maintained for months, despite reports from researchers and journalists indicating it was much higher. Until June, Rosselló refused to admit his government might have undercounted—and this is not the only spurious claim made since the disaster.

United States agencies and the Puerto Rican government have gone back and forth on statements and plans addressing the hurricane's death count, efforts to restore electricity, and aid measures, described below.

A Changing Death Toll

According to the Puerto Rican government's initial count, only 64 people died when the Category 5 storm made landfall on September 20th. However, at least a thousand more have died since from its indirect effects: power outages in hospitals, or lack of food, water, and medical supplies.

After a New York Times investigation found at least 1,000 people might have died because of the storm, the government came under fire for its stance. In December of 2017, Rosselló admitted that the toll "may be higher than the official count certified to date" and ordered a review of all the deaths on the island after Maria in order to determine whether they could be attributed to the storm.

Since then, researchers and journalists have made further estimates; in a highly publicized study, a team of Harvard University researchers who randomly surveyed households in Puerto Rico estimated that 4,600 people may have died, directly and indirectly, in the storm's aftermath. Pacific Standard compiled an analysis of these estimates in June.

Now, one month after the government released records confirming the higher death toll, authorities have officially acknowledged the disparity in a request to Congress seeking $139 billion in recovery funds.

The Struggle to Restore Power

When Maria made landfall, it wiped out Puerto Rico's power grid, leaving the whole island without electricity and contributing indirectly to more deaths.

Months after the storm, with the power still out, officials estimated they could have electricity restored by the spring. General Diana M. Holland, commander of the South Atlantic Division of the Army Corps of Engineers, told the New York Times that most of the island would have power by the end of February, while rural areas would have to wait until the end of May.

It would take much longer than that. By May, half the population was still in the dark.

Reports attribute the delay to the sheer amount of work. The storm did extensive damage to the island's outdated power grid, and a lack of coordination among federal and Puerto Rican authorities compounded an already difficult task, according to a New York Times investigation. The obstacles abound: a lack of supplies on the island, Puerto Rico's bankruptcy and failing infrastructure, controversy over hiring a small contractor with suspected ties to the Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, and a lackluster response from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, known as Prepa.

Even after regular service resumed, the power grid has remained unstable. Since the storm, the island has suffered several large outages, including a blackout that left more than three-quarters of the population without power in April.

But finally, on Tuesday, officials announced that electricity has been restored to most of the island—just before another temporary blackout left thousands in the dark again, HuffPost reports. In a tweet, Prepa said 0.002 percent of its customers, or 25 people, remained without power.

"We expect the remaining 25 customers to receive electricity within the coming weeks," Carlos Mercader, executive director of the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration, told the Hill in a statement.

Ending Aid?

Immediately after the storm, as thousands went without food, water, and medical supplies, FEMA responded with a lackluster recovery plan.

Pacific Standard reported on the cost of the Trump administration's negligence in Puerto Rico in May; a Politico investigation also found federal emergency response officials "responded far more aggressively" to Hurricane Harvey in Texas than to Maria.

According to Politico, in the first nine days of the disaster, FEMA approved only $6.2 million in assistance to Maria victims, compared to $141.8 million spent in the aftermath of Harvey in Texas. FEMA also approved significantly fewer meals, liters of water, and tarps than it did for Harvey.

With recovery still in process, FEMA has denied claims that it moved to end aid to the island in February. As of May, FEMA had approved $2.2 billion in total funding to Puerto Rico "for debris removal and emergency protective measures," FEMA said in a statement.

Still, between the lack of power and supplies in its aftermath, Maria has become the deadliest storm in modern American history.