Nation

Higher Puerto Rico death toll reflects survey across island

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — Puerto Rico’s official death toll from Hurricane Maria more than doubled from 16 to 34 two weeks after the storm as a result of a full accounting intended to add up the piecemeal reports from around the island, Governor Ricardo Rosselló said Wednesday.

Rosselló said at a news briefing he had commissioned the accounting to add up the reports slow to arrive from devastated hospitals and local medical agencies. The new tally may still not be complete, but it offers the clearest picture yet of how people died during and after Maria, he said.

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Nineteen people were killed directly by the storm — by drowning, being buried in mudslides, struck by falling objects, or otherwise, Rosselló said. He said the others had died indirectly — from a heart attack or suicide or because they languished without oxygen or necessary medical care as hospitals floundered without power and patients were cut off from care.

“We were not able to aggregate this complete set of data before,” Rosselló said. “We were getting little bits of certified data, but after yesterday’s effort, we have a more complete picture of what has occurred in terms of direct deaths due to the storm and indirect as well.”

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Puerto Rican officials have not provided a detailed accounting of when, where, and how every death occurred, and they have not released the names of the 34 dead.

The government’s official count of the dead stood at 16 for days after the Category 4 hurricane plowed through, even as an island-wide power outage and a widespread lack of diesel raised deep worries about the fate of sick and frail residents who needed hospital treatment, regular dialysis, and other necessary care.

The new numbers show that the storm and its aftermath were not only deadlier than originally thought, but deadlier than President Trump apparently realized when he told Puerto Ricans on Tuesday that they should be proud that only 16 had died in the storm.

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“Sixteen versus in the thousands,” Trump said as he visited the island, comparing the toll with the 1,833 killed by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. More than 80 people were killed by Hurricane Harvey, which devastated Texas in late August, according to government figures and news reports.

At the news conference, Rosselló also responded to Trump’s comment in an interview with Fox News that his administration could help the island wipe out its crushing $73 billion debt.

“That is the president’s opinion,” Rosselló said. “I am concerned only with actions and not words. I am concerned with getting the people of Puerto Rico what they need.”

Trump’s vow Tuesday to wipe out Puerto Rico’s massive debt issues was quickly dismissed Wednesday by White House budget director Mick Mulvaney, revealing how senior administration officials continue to struggle for ways to respond to the US territory’s financial problems.

Trump said in an interview with Fox News, ‘‘They owe a lot of money to your friends on Wall Street and we’re going to have to wipe that out. You’re going to say goodbye to that, I don’t know if it’s Goldman Sachs, but whoever it is you can wave goodbye to that.’’

Bloomberg reported that Trump’s comments sent the value of Puerto Rico debt plunging, with a key general obligation bond due in 2035 falling to a record low of 32 cents on the dollar, a roughly 25 percent drop in one day.

Mulvaney said he had discussed the issue with Trump on the flight back to Washington late Tuesday and that the debt would not be wiped out after all.

‘‘I wouldn’t take it word for word with that,’’ Mulvaney said on CNN.

Congress last year passed a law called the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act, known as PROMESA, which was meant to help Puerto Rico restructure its debt. Mulvaney said that process would continue and that the Trump administration was focused on helping the island recover from the hurricane in the near term.

Puerto Rico’s governor said that 91 percent of the island is still without power with no swift improvement in sight.

Other areas have shown improvement. He said 70 percent of supermarkets and 76 percent of gas stations are now operational and about 43 percent of the island now has telecommunications, compared with 25 percent last week. Roughly half the island still does not have access to water.

There have been 246,000 applications for Federal Emergency Management Agency individual assistance in the past two days, said Alejandro De La Campa, the FEMA regional director.

Also, the top US general overseeing hurricane relief in Puerto Rico said the military will establish numerous hospitals there in coming days, as thousands of additional troops and dozens more helicopters arrive.

Army Lieutenant General Jeffrey S. Buchanan described in a phone interview a mission that is still evolving and growing as the US government grapples with an extended response to Hurricane Maria. Buchanan arrived Sept. 28 when there were about 4,100 US troops involved in relief efforts, and he said that number has more than doubled to 9,000, including about 4,000 members of the National Guard.

At least a ‘‘couple thousand’’ more troops will deploy from the mainland United States, Buchanan said. The Puerto Rico National Guard, whose members have been slow to activate as they dealt with devastation in their own homes and carried out full-time jobs as first responders, also is expected to increasingly play an important role, he said.

Material from the Washington Post was used in this report.
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