A woman places one of the hundreds of shoes in memory of those killed by Hurricane Maria in front of the Puerto Rico Capitol.
Photo: AP

Since Hurricane MarĂ­a struck Puerto Rico last September, experts have struggled to tally how many deaths were directly related to the devastating storm. The official death count stands at 64, but various non-governmental efforts to quantify hurricane-related fatalities vastly exceed that number. Newly-released governmental data bolsters those estimates, revealing that 700 additional deaths happened within just the first 20 days after Maria struck.

The data was released on Tuesday by the Puerto Rican government’s demographic records registry. It reveals that the total number of deaths in the first 20 days following Hurricane María was 2,320—700 more deaths than was average for a 20 day period in 2016, according to an analysis by El Nuevo Día, the island’s largest newspaper.

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The Puerto Rican government has been the subject of persistent criticism from experts and Puerto Ricans alike for its failure to do a proper death count. Puerto Rican governor Ricardo Roselló responded to critics by commissioning an independent investigation into the death count by the Milken Institute of Public Health at George Washington University last February. Initial results are slated to come out this summer, according the university’s website.

Nonetheless, the discrepancies between the government’s official death toll and experts’ estimates prompted lawsuits from CNN and the Center for Investigative Journalism in Puerto Rico, according to CNN. The Puerto Rican government complied with a court issued order by releasing the official database this week.

The newly released supports what independent researchers and journalists have previously found: that the number of Maria-related deaths dwarfs the official death count. A survey-based Harvard study released last month estimated the median death toll at 4,645—more than 70 times the official death toll. Other estimates from the New York Times and the Center for Investigative Journalism place the death count at over a 1,000 deaths.

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And pinpointing the right number matters. On Thursday, lawmakers introduced a bill aimed at probing the federal response to hurricanes in Puerto Rico. “We now know from a number of studies and media reports that the death toll in Puerto Rico is likely staggeringly higher than the official count,” said Representative Nydia M. Velázquez (D—New York), co-signer of the bill, in a statement. “Our legislation would look at how the Trump Administration’s feeble response to this disaster was shaped by the artificially low death toll.”

Puerto Rico is still struggling to bounce back after Hurricane Maria. Accurate death estimates not only aid in hurricane preparedness in the event of another storm, but provide much-needed closure for the families of those that perished.