December 18, 2017 / 3:58 PM / in 2 months

Puerto Rico orders review of official Hurricane Maria death toll

(Reuters) - Puerto Rico’s governor on Monday ordered a review of the deaths that occurred in the U.S. territory after Hurricane Maria struck, following multiple media reports that the death toll was far higher than the official count.

Puerto Rico has been struggling to rebuild since Hurricane Maria slammed into the island on Sept. 20 as the strongest storm to hit it in nine decades. About 30 percent of the island still has no electricity and 500 people remain in shelters three months later, according to the U.S. territory’s government.

But, despite the scale of the devastation, the government says that 64 people died because of the hurricane, which U.S. President Donald Trump has praised for being a relatively low death toll.

Multiple media reports said the death toll was likely far higher. The New York Times said earlier this month that around 1,000 other people may have died in the weeks following the hurricane in part because the island’s infrastructure, including hospitals, took a severe hit.

Ricardo Rossello, Puerto Rico’s governor, acknowledged the media reports of a higher death toll and said that officials wanted the most accurate count possible.

“That is why I have ordered the Puerto Rico Demographic Registry and the Department of Public Safety to conduct a thorough review and inspection of all deaths that have taken place since Hurricane Maria hit, regardless of what the death certificate says,” Rosello said.

“We always expected that the number of hurricane-related deaths would increase as we received more factual information — not hearsay — and this review will ensure we are correctly counting everybody.”

The storm cut off power and cell phone service, toppled trees, destroyed 230,000 homes and damaged another 400,000.

Rossello also called for the creation of a “panel of experts” that would look into ways to improve the current death certification process.

Puerto Rico was in deep financial trouble even before Hurricane Maria. It had been in a recession for a decade and the government had declared bankruptcy to restructure $120 billion in debt.

Reporting by Makini Brice; Editing by Alistair Bell

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