U.S. charges FEMA official, contractor in Puerto Rico corruption case

By Andy Sullivan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Justice Department on Tuesday announced corruption charges against a senior government official and a contractor who worked to rebuild Puerto Rico’s electrical grid after Hurricane Maria devastated the island in 2017.

In a 15-count indictment, U.S. prosecutors allege that Ahsha Tribble, who oversaw the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s efforts to restore electrical power after the hurricane, accepted helicopter rides, hotel rooms and other bribes from Donald Ellison, president of a company called Cobra Acquisitions LLC, which performed much of the work.

In return, Tribble pressured FEMA and the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority to steer work to Ellison’s firm, prosecutors say. Cobra was awarded two contracts worth $1.8 million, according to federal prosecutors in Puerto Rico.

Prosecutors also charged Jovanda Patterson, a former FEMA deputy chief of staff who they say evaluated Cobra’s work even as she was trying to get a job with the company. Patterson also lied about her government pay to secure a higher salary at Cobra, they say.

FEMA and Cobra’s parent company, Mammoth Energy Services Inc., both said they were cooperating with the investigation.

Tribble and Patterson were not immediately reachable for comment. Attorneys for Ellison did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Charges filed against Tribble and Ellison include conspiracy to commit bribery, honest-services wire fraud and disaster fraud.

As part of the investigation, prosecutors have $4.4 million, a sailboat, and construction equipment from Ellison, according to the announcement.

(Reporting by Andy Sullivan; Editing by Bernadette Baum)

Exclusive: Puerto Rico open for tourists despite ‘mixed-bag’ recovery – governor

FILE PHOTO: Governor of Puerto Rico Ricardo Rossello delivers remarks during a commemorative event organized by the local government a year after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, in San Juan, Puerto Rico September 20, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

By Jessica Resnick-Ault and Nick Brown

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello flew to New York this week on a mission: persuade potential tourists that the hurricane-ravaged island was ready for their return.

But Puerto Rico’s recovery from last year’s Hurricane Maria has been a “mixed bag,” Rossello told Reuters on Thursday, acknowledging that the bankrupt U.S. territory, while improving, is far from out of the woods.

Puerto Rico has received only a small fraction of the federal funding it needs to get back on its feet, Rossello said in a 75-minute interview, and getting access to the rest could take more than a decade.

His administration estimates that fixing Puerto Rico fully will require $139 billion, but the federal government has earmarked only about $60 billion to $65 billion for the recovery, he said. Of that, only about $3 billion to $4 billion has actually flowed into the island’s coffers. Obtaining the remainder could take 10 to 11 years, he said, adding that his team is lobbying the U.S. Congress for more money.

Compounding the problem is Puerto Rico’s bankruptcy in U.S. federal court, where it is trying to restructure $120 billion of debt and pension obligations. There are also ongoing spending disputes between the government and a federally appointed fiscal oversight board.

In the year since Hurricane Maria, Rossello has at times been diplomatic regarding the federal government’s response, while at other times – especially lately – adopting a more critical take. He has also been criticized for sticking with an estimated death toll of 64 early-on, when strong evidence suggested it could be higher. A government-commissioned study by researchers at George Washington University eventually pegged the toll at around 3,000.

When asked whether his administration’s messaging strategies have been tied to an effort to maintain good relations with President Donald Trump, Rossello said a “critical part” of the island’s recovery “is making sure the federal government responds to our petitions.”

“So yes, I have opted for a path that involves dialogue, that involves collaboration,” Rossello said, adding that he has not been afraid to be critical.

If Trump does not sign the island’s request to extend the federal government’s 100 percent coverage of repair costs, “I’ll be the first one to fight it,” Rossello said, “and I’ll be the first to point out that action, or lack of action, is one of the main obstacles to our recovery.”

Rossello said Puerto Rico still has as many as 60,000 homes with temporary tarp roofs. It also has hundreds of thousands of informally constructed homes with many owners lacking title to their property.

Rebuilding will require the current ranks of about 45,000 construction workers to grow to 130,000, according to Rossello, who recently signed an executive order increasing the minimum hourly construction wage to $15 despite opposition from the oversight board and the private sector.

POWER SHIFT

The island’s government is still considering initiatives that could make the island’s troubled electricity grid more resilient, Rossello said. Ultimately, the island hopes to generate 40 percent of its electricity from renewables and steer away from fossil fuels. The shift would require a new regulatory policy, approval by the bondholders, and, potentially, investment from outside companies or organizations.

“We have received 10 to 12 unsolicited proposals for generation,” he said, while acknowledging the government has yet to find a private operator for the power utility’s transmission and distribution operations.

But changes at the electric agency known as PREPA, which Rossello called one of the most troubled organizations in modern history, will be gradual. The governor said he is working with a search firm to identify outside board members for the utility, after nearly the entire board quit in an uproar over appointment of a new CEO.

Limited electricity was a major problem for the island’s small business sector, according to a Federal Reserve Bank of New York report on Thursday. A survey of more than 400 businesses with fewer than 500 employees found 77 percent suffered losses as a result of hurricanes Irma and Maria.

ISLAND BECKONS TOURISTS

Meanwhile, Rossello is trying not only to restore tourism, but to expand it in such a way that it incorporates hundreds of square miles of seaside and mountain communities that are largely unvisited. Puerto Rico’s tourism is small compared with other Caribbean locales and tends to be centered in San Juan.

The island’s visitor lodgings hit a 2017 high of 204,025 in July, but fell to just under 30,000 in October following the hurricanes, according to Puerto Rico Tourism Company data.

Convincing tourists to leave the capital, though, will require easier travel. “Puerto Rico should be a multi-port destination,” he said, discussing plans to beef up airport capacity in the south and west of the island.

He emphasized the possibility of capitalizing on Puerto Rico’s near-constant spate of community festivals. “We have flower festivals, orange festivals, plantain festivals, coffee festivals, music festivals.”

Rossello pointed to so-called chinchorreos as a possible draw, events in which Puerto Rican foodies move from one inexpensive eatery to the next.

“A bar crawl for food – that’s the best way to put it,” the governor said, “and the island is small, so you start in one place and you’re on a beachfront, and 15 minutes later you’re in the mountains.”

(Reporting by Jessica Resnick-Ault and Nick Brown in New York, Karen Pierog in Chicago and Luis Valentin Ortiz in San Juan; Editing by Daniel Bases and Matthew Lewis)

A year after deadly Maria, Puerto Rico still struggles with aftermath

Plastic tarps over damaged roofs are seen on houses a year after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico in San Juan, Puerto Rico, September 18, 2018. Picture taken September 18, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

By Luis Valentin Ortiz

SAN JUAN (Reuters) – Shuttered businesses, blue tarp roofs and extensively damaged homes can still be seen throughout Puerto Rico a year after Hurricane Maria ripped through the island with 150 mile-per-hour winds, and access to electricity and fresh water remain spotty.

Last month, the U.S. Commonwealth’s government sharply raised the official estimate of Maria’s death toll to almost 3,000 after an independent study. The exact death toll figure remains unknown, and the governor has admitted his administration failed to properly record storm-related deaths.

Meanwhile, U.S. President Donald Trump has refused to accept the new number and continues to joust with many local officials and other critics who complain that the federal response to the storm was inadequate.

“Today is a day to remember those who are not physically with us but left a significant mark after their departure. Hurricane Maria took with it many lives that we will not overlook and that we still remember with a great weight of pain,” Governor Ricardo Rossello said Thursday ahead of a planned memorial event: “One Year After Maria” with religious leaders and government officials.

About 20,000 pallets of unused water bottles are seen along an airplane runway a year after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico in Ceiba, Puerto Rico, September 18, 2018. Picture taken September 18, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

About 20,000 pallets of unused water bottles are seen along an airplane runway a year after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico in Ceiba, Puerto Rico, September 18, 2018. Picture taken September 18, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

U.S. Housing & Urban Development (HUD) Secretary Ben Carson was also on the island, where he was expected to give an update on his agency response efforts to Hurricane Maria.

The storm knocked out power and communications to virtually all of Puerto Rico’s 3.2 million residents while destroying the homes of thousands.

Even before the Category-4 storm hit, Puerto Rico was financially bankrupt with $120 billion in debt and pension liabilities it cannot pay. A year after Maria, the island is far from prepared for the next big storm, with an ever-fragile power grid, damaged infrastructure and the same crippling debt.

The island’s government initially put the death toll at 64, but the August study by George Washington University estimated that Maria killed 2,975 people either directly or indirectly from the time it struck in September 2017 to mid-February.

Trump has described his administration’s response to the disaster as an “unsung success” and “one of the best jobs that’s ever been done.” He further said that “3000 people did not die” following Hurricane Maria.

“If he calls a success or an unsung success 3,000 people dying by his watch, definitely he doesn’t know what success is,” San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz, a vocal Trump critic, told Reuters during a recent interview.

Lucila Cabrera, 86, sits at the porch of her damaged house by Hurricane Maria, a year after the storm devastated Puerto Rico, near Barceloneta, Puerto Rico, September 18, 2018. Picture taken September 18, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Bar

Lucila Cabrera, 86, sits at the porch of her damaged house by Hurricane Maria, a year after the storm devastated Puerto Rico, near Barceloneta, Puerto Rico, September 18, 2018. Picture taken September 18, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

BRACING

More than 200,000 people left the island after the storm, mostly to the U.S. mainland, according to government data.

There are still some 45,000 homes with so-called “blue roofs,” or tarps installed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). The San Juan mayor has noted that the island has seen only a fraction of almost $50 billion in recovery funds Congress approved for Puerto Rico, including $20 billion in HUD funds.

“Most of the people that have requested help from FEMA … have not received enough assistance to be able to take care of their problems,” Mayor Cruz said, adding that “a lot of people that don’t have a title deed and they really are not eligible to receive any type of support or help.”

The recovery process after Maria has also seen hundreds of community-driven efforts. During a forum held on Wednesday by the nonprofit Center for Investigative Journalism, community leaders urged for a multisectoral approach to the recovery, rather than a government-only-led effort, which has proven slow and full of missteps.

“We lost people, roofs and houses, but our community worked hard to get back on its feet,” said Wilfredo Lopez, a community leader of the Sonadora neighborhood in Aguas Buenas, which had disaster-trained residents and its own protocols in place before the storm hit.

(Reporting By Luis Valentin Ortiz; Editing by Daniel Bases and David Gregorio)

Hurricane Florence set for ‘direct hit’ on U.S. east coast

Trent Bullard fills gas containers for his generator ahead of Hurricane Florence in Pembroke, North Carolina, U.S., September 11, 2018. REUTERS/Anna Driver

By Anna Driver

HOLDEN BEACH, N.C. (Reuters) – More than 1 million people were ordered to evacuate their homes along the U.S. southeast coast as Hurricane Florence, the most powerful storm to threaten the Carolinas in nearly three decades, barreled closer on Tuesday.

Florence, a Category 4 storm with winds of 130 miles per hour (210 kph), was expected to make landfall on Friday, most likely in North Carolina near the South Carolina border, the National Hurricane Center in Miami said.

U.S. President Donald Trump on Tuesday signed declarations of emergency for both North Carolina and South Carolina, freeing up federal money and resources for storm response.

“This storm is not going to be a glancing blow. This storm is going to be a direct hit on our coast,” said Jeff Byard, associate administrator for response and recovery at the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

“We are planning for devastation.”

The slow-moving storm was about 905 miles (1,455 km) east-southeast of Cape Fear, North Carolina, at 11 a.m. EDT, according to the NHC, which warned the storm was expected to strengthen with life-threatening storm surge possible along the coasts of North and South Carolina.

Residents boarded up their homes and stripped grocery stores bare of food, water and supplies. The South Carolina Highway Patrol sent “flush cars” eastbound on major highways to clear traffic before reversing lanes on major roadways to speed the evacuation.

“This is still a very dangerous storm. We must take it very seriously,” South Carolina Governor Henry McMaster said at a Tuesday news conference. “We are in a very deadly and important game of chess with Hurricane Florence.”

McMaster lifted an earlier evacuation order for parts of three southern coastal counties – Jasper, Beaufort and Colleton – but left them in effect for the state’s northern coast and urged residents to flee.

Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, said classes would be canceled after 5 p.m. on Wednesday, joining other colleges in the state making similar plans.

The U.S. Navy guided-missile destroyer USS Nitze departs Naval Station Norfolk to ride out the storm in the Atlantic Ocean ahead of Hurricane Florence, in Norfolk, Virginia, U.S. September 10, 2018. U.S. Navy/Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Justin Wolpert/Handout via REUTERS

The U.S. Navy guided-missile destroyer USS Nitze departs Naval Station Norfolk to ride out the storm in the Atlantic Ocean ahead of Hurricane Florence, in Norfolk, Virginia, U.S. September 10, 2018. U.S. Navy/Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Justin Wolpert/Handout via REUTERS

12-FOOT STORM SURGE

In addition to flooding the coast with wind-driven storm surges of seawater as high as 12 feet (3.7 m), Florence could drop 20 inches to as much as 30 inches (51 cm to 76 cm) of rain in places, posing the risk of deadly flooding miles inland, forecasters said. They warned the storm could linger for days after making landfall.

Wall Street was sniffing out companies that could gain or lose at the storm’s hands. Generator maker Generac Holdings Inc rose 2.2 percent and reached its highest price since April 2014.

Insurers Allstate Corp and Travelers Companies Inc were up slightly in early trade after falling sharply on Monday on worries about claims losses.

At least 250,000 more people were due to be evacuated from the northern Outer Banks barrier islands in North Carolina on Tuesday.

Vance McGougan, 57, of Fayetteville, North Carolina, and his family did not wait for the noon deadline to evacuate a rented house at Holden Beach, about two hours away.

“We had already decided … that it was prudent for us to get on the road,” McGougan said.

Two years ago, when Hurricane Matthew crossed Fayetteville, McGougan said his house was without power for five days.

Classified as a Category 4 on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale of hurricane strength, Florence is the most severe storm to threaten the U.S. mainland this year.

The United States was hit with a series of high-powered hurricanes last year, including Hurricane Maria, which killed some 3,000 people in Puerto Rico, and Hurricane Harvey, which killed about 68 people and caused an estimated $1.25 billion in damage with catastrophic flooding in Houston.

(Additional reporting by Gene Cherry in Raleigh, North Carolina, Liz Hampton in Houston, Susan Heavey in Washington, Bernie Woodall in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, Alden Bentley in New York and Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee; Writing by Nick Zieminski; Editing by Scott Malone and Bill Trott)

Judge rejects bid to block end of aid to Hurricane Maria evacuees

FILE PHOTO: Ysamar Figueroa carrying her son Saniel, looks at the damage in the neighbourhood after the area was hit by Hurricane Maria, in Canovanas, Puerto Rico September 26, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins/File Photo

BOSTON (Reuters) – A federal judge on Thursday rejected a request to block the U.S. government from cutting off aid to hundreds of Puerto Rican families who fled the hurricane-ravaged island in 2017 and are living in hotels and motels across the United States.

But U.S. District Judge Timothy Hillman in Worcester, Massachusetts, ordered the government to continue providing assistance to people who were forced to leave their homes because of Hurricane Maria until Sept. 13 so they could prepare.

Lawyers for a group of Puerto Ricans pursuing the lawsuit had argued that the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) decision to terminate aid violated their due process rights and contended that they being discriminated against.

But Hillman said they were unlikely to succeed on the merits of their claims and rejected their request for an injunction that would require FEMA to continue providing aid to evacuees until they obtained temporary or permanent housing.

FILE PHOTO: A broken traffic light, a street sign and branches lie on the street after the area was hit by Hurricane Maria, in San Juan, Puerto Rico September 22, 2017. Picture taken September 22, 2017. REUTERS/Alvin Baez/File Photo

FILE PHOTO: A broken traffic light, a street sign and branches lie on the street after the area was hit by Hurricane Maria, in San Juan, Puerto Rico September 22, 2017. Picture taken September 22, 2017. REUTERS/Alvin Baez/File Photo

“While this is the result that I am compelled to find, it is not necessarily the right result,” Hillman wrote.

He said he could not required FEMA “to do that which in a humanitarian and caring world should be done,” but could only order it to do what the law requires.

Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico with winds close to 150 miles per hour (240 km per hour) on Sept. 20, causing an estimated $90 billion in damage to the already economically struggling U.S. territory.

On Tuesday, the official death toll from Maria, the most powerful storm to hit the Caribbean island in almost a century, was raised to nearly 3,000.

According to FEMA, 1,044 families displaced by Maria as of Wednesday were receiving aid under a program that pays for hotel lodging. Since its launch the program in total has helped 7,032 families displaced by Maria, FEMA said.

(Reporting by Nate Raymond in Boston; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Jeffrey Benkoe)

Study estimates Puerto Rico deaths from Hurricane Maria at nearly 3,000

FILE PHOTO: A woman looks as her husband climbs down a ladder at a partially destroyed bridge, after Hurricane Maria hit the area in September, in Utuado, Puerto Rico, November 9, 2017. REUTERS/Alvin Baez/File Photo

(Reuters) – Hurricane Maria, the most powerful storm to strike Puerto Rico in nearly 90 years, is estimated to account for nearly 3,000 deaths, far more than the official toll of 64, according to a study commissioned by the island’s government and released on Tuesday.

The report found that 2,975 deaths could be attributed directly or indirectly to Maria from the time it struck in September 2017 to mid-February of this year, based on comparisons between predicted mortality under normal circumstances and deaths documented after the storm.

The study, conducted by George Washington University’s Milken Institute School of Public Health, also found that the risk of death from the hurricane was substantially higher for the poor and elderly men.

The report was conducted in collaboration with the University of Puerto Rico Graduate School of Public Health and was commissioned by Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello.

A previous study from a Harvard University-led research team released in May estimated that 4,645 lives were lost from Maria on the Caribbean island, and a Pennsylvania State University study put the number at 1,085.

The emergency response to the storm became highly politicized as the Trump administration was criticized as being slow to recognize the gravity of the devastation and too sluggish in providing disaster relief to Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory of more than 3 million residents.

The storm made landfall on Puerto Rico with winds close to 150 miles per hour (241 kph) on Sept. 17 and plowed a path of destruction across the island, causing property damage estimated at $90 billion and leaving much of the island without electricity for months.

(Reporting by Steve Gorman; Editing by Leslie Adler)

Judge orders further extension of aid to Puerto Rico storm evacuees

FILE PHOTO: Buildings damaged by Hurricane Maria are seen in Lares, Puerto Rico, October 6, 2017. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson/File Photo

By Nate Raymond

WORCESTER, Mass. (Reuters) – A federal judge on Wednesday extended until Aug. 31 an order preventing the eviction of hundreds of Puerto Rican families who fled the hurricane-ravaged island in 2017 and have been living in hotels and motels across the United States.

U.S. District Judge Timothy Hillman in Worcester, Massachusetts, issued the order after hearing arguments over whether he should issue a longer-term injunction barring the federal government from cutting off housing assistance to people who were forced to leave their homes because of Hurricane Maria.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) had planned to end the assistance program on June 30. Hillman’s decision on Wednesday extended a previously-imposed temporary restraining order that allowed the families to remain in hotels until checkout time on Aug. 7.

Hillman extended the order to allow the government time to respond to new arguments raised by lawyers representing evacuees in a proposed class action challenging FEMA’s actions.

“It’s going to take us time sort through this,” he said.

Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico on Sept. 20 with winds close to 150 miles per hour (240 kph), causing an estimated $90 billion in damage to the already economically struggling U.S. territory.

According to FEMA, 1,040 families displaced by Maria are currently receiving aid under a program that pays for hotel lodging. In total, the program has since its launch helped 7,032 families displaced by Maria, FEMA said.

Critics have said the federal government responded poorly to the disaster and provided inadequate aid. They contend that President Donald Trump’s administration viewed Puerto Ricans as second-class citizens, a claim it denies.

Four Puerto Ricans are pursuing the lawsuit, which was filed in June and contends that FEMA’s actions violate their due process rights under the U.S. Constitution.

Lawyers for the displaced Puerto Ricans argued in court that FEMA is legally obligated to continue to provide assistance to the evacuees, who they contend face potential homelessness if the program is prematurely ended without providing other assistance.

“They have no place to go back to, and what they’re seeking is assistance from the agency that already promised to give it to them,” said Natasha Bannan, an attorney with the advocacy organization LatinoJustice PRLDEF.

But Danielle Wolfson Young, a lawyer with the U.S. Justice Department representing FEMA, argued that the families had no right to continued assistance.

“FEMA has the discretion to implement and also to determine when to end the program,” she said.

(Reporting by Nate Raymond in; Worcester; Editing by Bill Berkrot)

U.S. judge grants reprieve to Puerto Ricans facing eviction

Jaykarey Skerett, a Puerto Rican mother whose home was destroyed by Hurricane Maria, sits with her two sons for an interview in her hotel room in Kissimmee, Florida, U.S. July 2 2018. Picture taken July 2, 2018. REUTERS/Joey Roule

By Joey Roulette

KISSIMMEE, Fl. (Reuters) – A federal judge will hold a hearing on Monday that could determine the fate of hundreds of Puerto Ricans who fled the hurricane-ravaged island last year and are lodging in motels, after granting them a reprieve from eviction over the weekend.

The last benefits of a federal aid program for Hurricane Maria evacuees from the island had been set to run out on Sunday morning, cutting off housing assistance for the group residing in state-side motels.

But late on Saturday U.S. District Judge Leo Sorokin of Massachusetts ordered the U.S. government to extend the aid for hotel vouchers to at least check-out time on July 4. At the hearing, he could decide whether to extend it further.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has said 1,722 families are currently receiving aid under its housing program, 585 of whom reside in Central Florida motels.

FEMA said in a statement on Sunday it was aware of the judge’s decision and was contacting vendors to comply with the court order.

U.S. Democratic Representative Darren Soto, whose Kissimmee district includes Puerto Ricans facing eviction, said a displaced family can either remain in the hotel with the looming fear of losing aid or take a free flight back to the island.

“There’s a couple tough decisions people really have to make,” Soto told reporters.

Hurricane Maria dealt a vicious blow to an already struggling island that has been in recession for more than a decade, with a poverty rate near 50 percent.

Maria destroyed or significantly damaged more than a third of about 1.2 million occupied homes on the island, the government estimates.

The task of rebuilding Puerto Rico’s housing stock ultimately falls to the territory government, which has no ability to pay for it after racking up $120 billion in bond and pension debt in the years before the storm.

(Reporting by Joey Roulette; Writing by Jon Herskovitz; Editing by Nick Zieminski)

Study hikes Puerto Rico’s Hurricane Maria death toll to 4,645

Graves destroyed during Hurricane Maria in September 2017, are seen at a cemetery, in Lares, Puerto Rico February 8, 2018. REUTERS/Alvin Baez

By Gene Emery

(Reuters Health) – Hurricane Maria claimed the lives of 4,645 people in Puerto Rico last year and not the 64 long pegged by the island’s government as the official death toll, according to a survey of thousands of residents by a research team led by Harvard University.

The researchers estimated that most victims of the storm died between Sept. 20 and Dec. 31, 2017, as a direct or indirect result of Puerto Rico’s worst natural disaster in 90 years. One-third perished because of delayed or interrupted medical care.

While cautioning that the estimate of 4,645 victims may be too low, the researchers said the numbers “underscore the inattention of the U.S. government to the frail infrastructure of Puerto Rico.”

The tally, reported online on Tuesday in the New England Journal of Medicine, is likely to be controversial because it is far higher than previous independent estimates.

The emergency response to the disaster became highly politicized and provoked criticism of President Donald Trump, who was faulted when much of the U.S. territory remained without power for months.

Puerto Rico’s government released a statement on Tuesday welcoming the study and saying it would analyze it further.

In the aftermath of the storm, Puerto Rico commissioned George Washington University to conduct an independent study into the death toll, the results of which are due soon.

“As the world knows, the magnitude of this tragic disaster caused by Hurricane Maria resulted in many fatalities. We have always expected the number to be higher than what was previously reported,” Carlos Mercader, executive director of the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration said in the government statement.

The chief author of the new study, Caroline Buckee of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston, did not respond to emails requesting comment.

Maria, a major hurricane with winds close to 150 miles (241 km) per hour, caused an estimated $90 billion in damage to an island already struggling economically and many residents have subsequently left.

There is a wide margin for error in the study authored by Buckee. While the researchers estimated 4,645 deaths, the actual number could be as low as 793 and as high as 8,498, the study showed.

The tally of 4,645 dead is more than four times higher than a December estimate by the New York Times, which said the actual death toll was probably about 1,052.

A Pennsylvania State University study put the number at 1,085.

The Buckee team randomly conducted in-person surveys of 3,299 of the estimated 1.1 million Puerto Rican households earlier this year, making sure to include remote areas.

Respondents were not paid and were asked if a household member had died directly or indirectly as a result of the storm. Missing people were not counted as deaths. Respondents were also asked about deaths within a five-minute walking distance of their homes.

The Buckee team also said that in the aftermath of the storm households went, on average, 68 days without water, 84 days without electricity and 41 days without cell phone coverage. In the most remote areas, 83 percent of the households were still without power by Dec. 31.

(Reporting by Gene Emery; Additional reporting by Daniel Bases in New York; Editing by Tom Brown)

Puerto Rico power grid braces for hurricane season

Jose Alvarez, 60, uses a head lamp while walking in the dark as the island's fragile power system is still reeling from the devastation wrought by Hurricane Maria eight months ago, in Jayuya, Puerto Rico May 10, 2018. REUTERS/Alvin Baez

By Jessica Resnick-Ault and Nick Brown

NEW YORK (Reuters) – The U.S. federal agency tasked with restoring electricity to Puerto Rico, after Hurricane Maria hit the Caribbean last year, is leaving the island though thousands still have no power heading into the next hurricane season starting next month.

Only a last-minute request from the governor of the island, bemoaning the “fragile state” of the power grid, managed to keep most of the generators brought by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) on Puerto Rican soil for another six months.

The remaining generators might help keep the lights on for hospitals or police stations if the island gets hit again during the coming hurricane season, which begins June 1.

Contractors of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers install an electricity pole as the island's fragile power system is still reeling from the devastation wrought by Hurricane Maria eight months ago, in Utuado, Puerto Rico May 17, 2018. REUTERS/Alvin Baez

Contractors of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers install an electricity pole as the island’s fragile power system is still reeling from the devastation wrought by Hurricane Maria eight months ago, in Utuado, Puerto Rico May 17, 2018. REUTERS/Alvin Baez

Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico last September, leaving 1.5 million homes and businesses in the dark. Both the island’s power utility and the Trump Administration’s Federal Emergency Management Agency were criticized for a slow response.

Most power has been restored by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers but the electricity grid remains unreliable, and suffered an island-wide blackout last month.

“The whole world is very nervous about hurricane time,” said Rosalina Abreu Gonzalez, who lives near Mariana, on the eastern side of the island, where power has still not been restored. “There is a real concern – the government hasn’t provided an energy system that is more secure.”

The Army Corps, a unit of the U.S. armed forces, has said its task is largely complete now that most people have power. About 22,000 customers are still without electricity, most in remote areas, according to the new head of the island’s power utility, the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority.

“Our mission wasn’t to build a modern resilient system,” Charles Alexander, Director of Contingency Operations and Homeland Security Headquarters at the Army Corps, said at a Senate hearing last week.

On April 29, Governor Ricardo Rossello asked U.S. officials to leave behind 850 generators at critical facilities, along with three larger generators used to keep the grid stable. FEMA agreed to leave the mega-generators and generators for 700 critical facilities. Mega-generators supply 75 megawatts of power, enough to power 75,000 homes.

New PREPA Chief Executive Walter Higgins, who has only been on the job for two months, said he is focusing on emergency procedures in the event of another disaster in coming months.

He said there is a plan for building a more resilient grid in the future. Higgins took over from Ricardo Ramos, who resigned as CEO in November after coming under fire for signing unvetted, little-known contractors to restore power, rather than immediately ask for assistance from other utilities.

“Unfortunately, pain causes learning, and what we’ve learned is how to get mutual assistance called for and on the island immediately,” Higgins told Reuters.

Residents of La Chorrera neighbourhood carry an electricity pole as the island's fragile power system is still reeling from the devastation wrought by Hurricane Maria eight months ago, in Utuado, Puerto Rico May 11, 2018. REUTERS/Alvin Bae

Residents of La Chorrera neighbourhood carry an electricity pole as the island’s fragile power system is still reeling from the devastation wrought by Hurricane Maria eight months ago, in Utuado, Puerto Rico May 11, 2018. REUTERS/Alvin Baez

Still, PREPA’s grid lacks buried power lines or reinforced poles, common in other hurricane prone areas. The power utility ran up an $8 billion debt over many years, largely due to poor bill collection, causing the system to fall into disrepair.

“It is very hard to see these messages where the government is saying we’re ready for next season. We’re not,” said Sheylda Diaz, a biology professor who lives near Utuado, in the island’s center, where some lines and poles have yet to be fixed.

The Army Corps will not provide further line restoration after Friday, FEMA said.

“People here have no idea that they are leaving,” said Abreu Gonzalez, who runs a center where people without power can go for meals.

Higgins said he sympathizes with those who want the Corps to remain. “I can understand why somebody would want them to stay longer, as long as there’s a single customer out.”

Maria hit shortly after Hurricanes Harvey and Irma slammed the U.S. mainland in 2017, but in both cases, power was largely restored within a week.

“I cannot imagine a scenario where 20,000-plus Texans or 20,000 Floridians were without power and FEMA would make that decision,” said Sen. Martin Heinrich, a Democrat from New Mexico. “I think that’s reprehensible.”

(Reporting By Jessica Resnick-Ault; Editing by Diane Craft)