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Puerto Rico acknowledges Hurricane Maria likely killed hundreds

Government quietly recognises estimate, but says official death toll of 64 won't updated until new study is released.

Puerto Rican officials have quietly acknowledged that last year's devastating Hurricane Maria killed more than 1,400 people, far more than the official death toll of 64 that was previously reported. 

The figure was included in a draft report to Congress that outlined the government's reconstruction plan for the US territory. 

In the report, Puerto Rico's government said there were 1,427 more deaths from September to December 2017 than the average for the same time period over the previous four years. The figure was also included in a report, dated July 9, which was recently published online, according to The New York Times, which was first to report that officials had acknowledged the new estimate. 

Pedro Cerame, a spokesman for the Puerto Rican government, told the newspaper that the territory's officials "definitely acknowledge this is a realistic estimate". 

The report to Congress said the additional deaths resulted from the effects of a storm that led to "cascading failures" in infrastructure across the island of 3.3 million people. 

READ MORE: Devastated scenes after Hurricane Maria

In the days and weeks after the storm, which hit on September 20, the territory experienced an island-wide electricity outage, as well as blocked roads due to downed power lines and other debris, which made it difficult to move around and stretched emergency services beyond their capabilities.

"The hurricanes' devastating effects on people's health and safety cannot be overstated," the government said. 

A second hurricane hit two weeks later, further complicating efforts to help those most affected.

While the official death toll stood at 64, some officials have publicly said that far more people died due to the indirect effects of the powerful storm. A study published by US-based The New England Journal of Medicine in May suggested that more than 4,600 people were directly or indirectly killed by Hurricane Maria. 

Updated statistics, including the 1,427 count, were released in June, but the number had not been publicly acknowledged by officials. According to the New York Times, the government said it would wait to update its official tally until after it received a report it commissioned from George Washington University, which is due in the coming weeks.

$139bn recovery plan

The 1,427 figure came in a draft report to Congress that detailed the government's reconstruction plan, which is estimated to cost $139bn, 47 percent more than the bankrupt US commonwealth requested in November.    

The economic and disaster recovery plan allocates the money to housing, water and energy systems, education, transportation, public buildings, communications, planning, municipalities, as well as to the economy and environment, according to Governor Ricardo Rossello's office.

"Puerto Rico has a unique opportunity to innovate and rebuild in order to become that Puerto Rico we all want," Rossello said in a statement.

He added that the initiatives were aimed at "making us stronger and resilient, while guaranteeing a long-term economic recovery".

Last November, Rossello requested $94.4bn from Congress to rebuild the island's infrastructure, housing, schools and hospitals devastated by Hurricanes Maria and Irma.

That so-called Build Back Better plan contained a preliminary assessment of damages and an initial estimate of money the island needs to rebuild, according to the statement.

The final plan, which was submitted on the deadline day set in the 2018 US budget act, expanded the scope of the November request and was developed with input from federal agencies, the governor's office said. It was also posted on the internet and subjected to public hearings prior to its submission.

Puerto Ricans have accused the federal government, including US President Donald Trump of failing to come to their aid in the days, weeks and months after Maria. 

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