Puerto Rico raises official Hurricane Maria death toll to 2,975

Puerto Rico officially raised the death toll from the devastating storm last year from 64 to 2,975 

Puerto Rico has raised the official death toll from Hurricane Maria to 2,975 - a storm that struck the US island territory in September 2017.

Original figures estimated a total of 64 deaths, but the revised death toll is nearly 50 times higher.

“We never anticipated a scenario of zero communication, zero energy, zero highway access,” Puerto Rico’s governor, Ricardo Rosselló, told reporters. “I think the lesson is to anticipate the worst.”

"I'm giving an order to update the official number of deaths to 2,975," Rossello said at a press conference on Tuesday. "Although this is an estimate, it has a scientific basis."

This is the first official change to the death toll following efforts by journalists, activists and academics to get the government to officially acknowledge the scale of devastation.

The government's initial number was arrived at by counting those crushed by collapsing structures, drowned and hit by flying debris.

However many people also died as a result of poor healthcare provision and a lack of electricity and clean water. Repeated power outages also led to an increased number of deaths from diabetes and sepsis.

Puerto Rico has struggled to repair its infrastructure and power grid since the storm, and is asking US Congress for $139bn (£108bn) in recovery funds.

Nearly a year on from the hurricane, Puerto Ricans are still struggling and more than 300,000 people have fled the island for the mainland.

Rosselló said the report provided a foundation for the government to improve its response to hurricanes and other disasters. He also announced the creation of a “9/20” commission to determine what such improvements should look like.

George Washington University researchers found that the number of deaths from September 2017 to February 2018 was up 22% year on year.

The university researchers said the official count from the hurricane, which hit with huge force on 20 September as a series of tropical storms and hurricanes raged through the region, was low, in part, because doctors were not trained in how to certify deaths after a disaster.

Researchers said the actual number of excess deaths was estimated to be in the range of 2,658 to 3,290. Researchers said the next stage of assessing the death toll includes examining death certificates and interviewing family and friends of the deceased to determine if those deaths should be attributed to the storm.

Nydia Velazquez, a Democratic New York congresswoman, said the report shows the US government failed the people of Puerto Rico.

“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,” she said in a statement. There is no national standard on how to count disaster-related deaths.

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