President Donald Trump supports "full accountability" in assessing the death toll in Puerto Rico from Hurricane Maria, a top aide said Tuesday, but the White House did not directly address a new estimate that pegs that number in the thousands.
The new estimate of almost 3,000 dead in the six months after Maria devastated the island in September 2017 and knocked out the entire electrical grid was made by researchers with the Milken Institute School of Public Health at George Washington University.
Some media and academic studies estimated the death toll at more than 1,000, and a government report to Congress conceded that there may have been 1,400 more deaths in Puerto Rico after the storm than the previous year.
"The number of excess deaths is still very big and now, as a society, we need to come together and look forward to the future", Rosselló said at a press conference.
Additional reporting from Newsy affiliate CNN.
Hurricane Maria was the most powerful storm to strike the Caribbean island in nearly a century.
"The lessons learned from this report and subsequent studies will help not just Puerto Rico, but other regions in the US and around the world that face the ongoing threat of hurricanes and other natural disasters", said Lynn R. Goldman, MD, MS, MPH, Michael and Lori Milken Dean of the GW Milken Institute SPH and a co-author of the report.
The storm's death toll has remained controversial as unofficial inquiries and independent research suggested the loss of life was far higher than 64 people formally counted as having perished.
The team also identified flaws in the system that may have led to underreporting deaths previously, including lack of communication and poor training for doctors on how to certify deaths in disasters.
Nearly 3,000 deaths in Puerto Rico linked to Hurricane Maria
The latest study says that from the period ranging from September to December 2017 alone, there were an excess of 2,098 deaths, and 2,975 from September 2017 to February 2018.
The office of Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossello did not immediately return a message for comment.
The government's previous estimate had been 1,400 more deaths than normal in the three months after the storm.
"Many stated that the Puerto Rico Department of Health (DoH) and the Puerto Rico Department of Public Safety (DPS) did not notify them about the CDC special guidelines for correct documentation of cases, on the importance of correctly documenting deaths related to the hurricane or on an emergency protocol for handling these cases", it says.
Researchers hope to continue their research, interviewing families of those who died to better understand how the hurricane impacted their deaths. There is no national standard on how to count disaster-related deaths.
Researchers said they took into account an 8 percent drop in Puerto Rico's population that occurred in the six months after the storm, when tens of thousands fled because of the damage.
However, they did not share details of their methodology, saying those will be released if the study is published in a scientific journal.
Today, GW Milken Institute SPH, in collaboration with researchers from the University of Puerto Rico Graduate School of Public Health, delivered on that request.