U.S. bill would provide Puerto Rico a path to statehood

U.S. bill would provide Puerto Rico a path to statehood
(Reuters) – The question of statehood for Puerto Rico would be put to voters of the U.S. commonwealth for a third time since 2012 under legislation introduced in Congress on Tuesday.

Proponents of the bill said it would provide the island with the same path to statehood taken by Alaska and Hawaii, the last two states admitted to the union.

Under the legislation, which has some bipartisan support, a federally authorized referendum would appear on the Nov. 3, 2020, ballot in Puerto Rico. Approval by a majority of the island’s voters would lead to a presidential proclamation within 30 months making Puerto Rico the 51st state.

President Donald Trump has called Puerto Rico “one of the most corrupt places on earth,” making the bill’s future murky. The island’s non-voting congressional representative, Jenniffer Gonzalez-Colon, said the measure has 45 sponsors.

The island is still trying to recover from devastating hurricanes that hit in 2017, while it works its way through a bankruptcy process to restructure about $120 billion of debt and pension obligations.

Gonzalez-Colon said the bill provides political equality for Puerto Rico.

“The American citizens of Puerto Rico will have the opportunity to participate in a federally-sponsored vote and be asked the following question: ‘Should Puerto Rico be admitted as a State of the Union, yes or no?’” she said in a statement. “This is similar to what happened in Alaska and Hawaii, which is what ultimately makes this legislation different.”

In a non-binding 2017 referendum https://www.reuters.com/article/us-puertorico-debt-vote/puerto-rico-governor-vows-statehood-push-after-referendum-win-idUSKBN1931NG, 97% of the island’s voters favored statehood, although turnout was just 23% due to a boycott against the vote.

In a 2012 vote, 61% of Puerto Ricans favored statehood over other alternatives. Neither results moved Congress to act on statehood.

Puerto Rico, which has been governed by the United States since 1899, has suffered the effects of unequal treatment under federal law compared with U.S. states, hindering the island’s development and economy, according to the bill.

(Reporting by Karen Pierog in Chicago; Editing by Matthew Lewis)

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)

Barbados, Caribbean neighbors brace for heavy rains as Dorian churns west

Tropical Storm Dorian is pictured off the coast of Venezuela in this August 26, 2019 NASA satellite photo. NASA/Handout via REUTERS

BRIDGETOWN (Reuters) – Residents of Barbados and other Caribbean islands braced for heavy rains as tropical storm Dorian churned west-northwest, with officials cautioning that it could approach hurricane strength on Tuesday.

Puerto Rico Governor Wanda Vázquez Garced declared a state of emergency for the U.S. territory late on Monday in anticipation of the storm, the government said on Twitter.

There will be about 360 shelters open across the island, the governor announced.

Dorian is expected to pass on the southwest side of Puerto Rico as a hurricane on Wednesday night, the National Hurricane Center said in an advisory.

Barbados, which is closest to the storm’s path, was hit by strong winds and intermittent showers, with periodic jolts of thunder and lightning, on Monday evening.

The Barbados Meteorological Services warned residents to exercise caution, saying wind speeds have climbed over the past six hours and will strengthen further overnight and into Tuesday morning.

A tropical storm watch is in effect for Puerto Rico, and the island of Santa Lucia is on hurricane watch.

Dorian tracked near the Windward Islands on Monday evening and is expected to reach the eastern Caribbean later on Tuesday, the U.S. National Hurricane Center said in a report.

By Tuesday morning, the storm was located about 30 miles (48 km) southeast of St. Lucia, blowing maximum sustained winds of 50 miles per hour, according to the NHC.

(Reporting by Robert Edison Sandiford; additional reporting by Rich McKay; Editing by Michael Perry and Ed Osmond)

Puerto Rico Senate leader rejects lawyer Pierluisi as next governor

FILE PHOTO: Rep. Pedro R. Pierluisi (D-PR), addresses delegates during the second session of the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, September 5, 2012. REUTERS/Jason Reed

SAN JUAN (Reuters) -Puerto Rico’s Senate leader on Thursday said the lawyer tapped by the island’s disgraced governor to succeed him did not have the support of his majority party, making it likely his nomination would be rejected by the territory’s legislature.

Puerto Rico Senate President Thomas Rivera Schatz said Pedr o Pierluisi’s role as an attorney advising the widely-disliked financial oversight board directing Puerto Rico’s bankruptcy presented conflicts of interests and made him unacceptable.

Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rosselló is set to step down at 5 p.m. ET on Friday over offensive chat messages and an administration corruption scandal that sparked nearly two weeks of mass protests demanding he resign.

Rosselló tapped Pierluisi as secretary of state, the position next in line to succeed him. If the legislature rejects Pierluisi’s nomination then Rosselló could pick another candidate.

Failing that, Justice Secretary Wanda Vázquez is next in line to succeed Rosselló. She has said she does not want the job.

“Pedro Pierluisi does not have the vote of the majority,” Schatz said in a fiery speech. “The lawyer for Puerto Rico’s number one enemy can’t be in charge of Puerto Rico.”

Hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans took to the streets in recent weeks to demand Rosselló quit after the leaked messages unleashed rage over suspected administration corruption, slow recovery from 2017’s deadly hurricanes and the U.S. territory’s bankruptcy.

Street protesters have also accused Pierluisi of serving the interests of the federally-created oversight board, not the Puerto Rican people’s.

Pierluisi waited in Puerto Rico’s Senate on Thursday to address legislators. He previously released a statement saying he had “listened to the people’s messages, their demonstrations,” and he would “only answer to the people.”

The speaker of Puerto Rico’s House of Representatives, Carlos Méndez has said he favors Schatz as secretary of state over Pierluisi, citing the lawyer’s role advising the board and other clients at Washington law firm O’Neill & Borges.

 

(Reporting By Luis Valentin in San Juan; Writing by Andrew Hay; Editing by Scott Malone and Grant McCool)

Governor resignation sparks power struggle in Puerto Rico

FILE PHOTO: Puerto Rico's Secretary of Justice Wanda Vazquez stands next to Governor Ricardo Rossello during a news conference in an undated still image from file video in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Courtesy WIPR NOTISEIS via REUTERS.

By Nick Brown

SAN JUAN (Reuters) – The resignation of Puerto Rico’s governor after mass protests has sparked a succession battle, and the winner could be a Washington corporate lawyer not directly linked to his administration, which has been dogged by corruption scandals.

Governor Ricardo Rossello said on Wednesday he would step down on Aug. 2 in the face of public anger over the release of profane chat messages and embezzlement charges against two former administration officials.

In line with the U.S. territory’s constitution, Secretary of Justice Wanda Vazquez is next in line to succeed Rossello, based on current Cabinet vacancies.

Protesters who forced Rosselló from office have vowed to oppose Vazquez, saying she is too close to the disgraced governor.

That has prompted leaders of Rossello’s pro-statehood party to look to a former Puerto Rico representative in the U.S. Congress as a possible successor, according to four sources familiar with the matter, who asked not to be named so they could discuss it.

Pedro Pierluisi, who represented the island in Washington from 2009 to 2017, has made it clear to party leaders he would accept the job, according to one of these people.

Pierluisi, currently an attorney with Washington law firm O’Neill & Borges, ran against Rossello in the gubernatorial election in 2016, losing in a primary.

A member of Rossello’s New Progressive Party (PNP), Pierluisi could become the commonwealth’s next governor if he is nominated and confirmed as secretary of state before Rossello resigns. That post, currently vacant, is first in line to succeed the governor.

Also vying for the position is Puerto Rico Senate President Thomas Rivera Schatz of the PNP, these people said.

EYES ON 2020

Foremost in the minds of party leaders is whether Rossello’s successor can help them retain the governorship when it comes up for grabs in November 2020.

Pierluisi, a former Puerto Rico secretary of justice, is favored by some Puerto Rico advocates in Washington for his familiarity with federal politics, according to one of the sources. Another of the sources said Pierluisi has stressed to party leaders that he would not seek re-election in 2020, to keep the door open for Schatz, Puerto Rico’s current delegate to the U.S. Congress Jenniffer Gonzalez, or another candidate.

Schatz is seen by some in the party as too closely linked to Rossello to be a viable successor or 2020 candidate, the people said.

Puerto Ricans want a leader to steer them out of crisis and economic recession after Rossello’s term was marked by back-to-back 2017 hurricanes that killed around 3,000 people just months after the U.S. territory filed for bankruptcy.

Pierluisi had a track record of gaining increased federal funding for Puerto Rico’s 3.2 million people while serving in Congress.

He also faced accusations in a 2016 New York Times report of possible conflicts of interest between legislation he introduced and financial consulting work by his wife, allegations they both denied.

Pierluisi has been named by local media as a possible successor to Rossello since his former secretary of state stepped down in the wake of the online chat scandal.

In the chats, published on July 13, Rossello and 11 top aides made offensive statements about female political opponents, gay pop singer Ricky Martin and ordinary Puerto Ricans.

(Reporting by Nick Brown in San Juan; additional reporting and writing by Andrew Hay; editing by Jonathan Oatis)

San Juan braces for an 11th day of protests, amid calls for Puerto Rico’s governor to resign

Police clash with demonstrators during a protest calling for the resignation of Governor Ricardo Rossello in San Juan, Puerto Rico July 23, 2019. REUTERS/Marco Bello

By Marco Bello

San Juan (Reuters) – San Juan braced on Tuesday for an 11th day of protests calling for the resignation of Puerto Rico’s governor over offensive chat messages that have drawn hundreds of thousands of people.

Police fired tear gas to disperse crowds late Monday and early Tuesday while protesters threw bottles and other objects at police, multiple media reports said.

Governor Ricardo Rossell has insisted he will not step down as leader of the U.S. Territory over misogynistic and homophobic messages exchanged between him and top aides, but said on Sunday that he would not seek re-election next year.

Rossell also said he would step down as head of the New Progressive Party and asked Puerto Ricans to give him another chance.

“I used words that I apologized for but I’ve also taken significant actions in the direction of helping vulnerable sectors,” Rossell told Fox News, explaining he had made policy changes significant to women and the LGBTQ community.

Those two groups were frequent targets of messages exchanged between Rossell and his aides in 889 pages of online group chats published July 13 by Puerto Rico’s Center for Investigative Journalism.

The crass messages showed a political elite intent on maintaining power on the bankrupt island where people still live under blue tarpaulins two years after hurricanes ripped roofs off their homes and killed over 3,000 people.

But his concessions failed to appease demonstrators on Monday, who called for him to immediately surrender the governorship in the latest scandal to hit Puerto Rico.

The island’s largest newspaper also called on the first-term governor to leave office and reported more than 500,000 protesters took to the streets of San Juan on Monday.

Then, demonstrators dressed in black T-shirts filled the city’s largest highway and marched in the pouring rain with local celebrities including Ricky Martin and Reggaeton star Daddy Yankee.

“In Puerto Rico, we don’t follow dictators. It’s time for you to go,” a drenched Martin, 47, the target of homophobic messages in Rossello’s chats, told cheering crowds.

San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz, an opposition politician running for governor in 2020, said Rosselló had run out of time.

U.S. President Donald Trump also blasted the “terrible” 40-year-old governor, who is affiliated with the U.S. Democratic Party and with whom Trump feuded in 2017 over the adequacy of the federal response to Hurricane Maria.

The protests have brought together Puerto Ricans from different political parties and none to vent anger at alleged corruption in the administration and its handling of hurricane recovery efforts.

Anti-Rossell demonstrations were also held in cities across the United States such as Los Angeles, New York and Boston which have large Puerto Rican communities.

(Reporting by Marco Bello; Writing by Rich McKay; Editing by Catherine Evans)

Thousands fill streets of San Juan to demand Puerto Rico’s governor resign

FILE PHOTO - Demonstrators protest for the resignation of Puerto Rico's governor Ricardo Rossello in San Juan, Puerto Rico, July 21, 2019. REUTERS/Gabriella N. Baez

(Reuters) – Thousands of people began pouring into the streets of San Juan on Monday morning in massive demonstrations to demand that Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello resign over offensive chat messages.

FILE PHOTO: Puerto Rico's new governor Ricardo Rossello addresses the audience during his swear-in ceremony outside the Capitol in San Juan, Puerto Rico January 2, 2017. REUTERS/Alvin Baez/File Photo

FILE PHOTO: Puerto Rico’s new governor Ricardo Rossello addresses the audience during his swear-in ceremony outside the Capitol in San Juan, Puerto Rico January 2, 2017. REUTERS/Alvin Baez/File Photo

Rossello’s announcement on Sunday that he would not seek re-election next year and would resign as head of the New Progressive Party seemed to have little effect on the crowds, who called for him to immediately step down as governor.

Crowds of people, some waving the U.S. island territory’s flag, gathered near San Juan’s baseball stadium for the latest in a series of more than a week of protests in the capital and elsewhere.

There is also a call for a general strike from trade unions. Many business owners decided to close shops and offices for the day, media reported.

Rossello, 40, asked for forgiveness and said he respected the wishes of Puerto Ricans in a message broadcast online on Sunday.

“I know that apologizing is not enough,” Rossello said in a video posted on Facebook. “A significant sector of the population has been protesting for days. I’m aware of the dissatisfaction and discomfort they feel. Only my work will help restore the trust of these sectors.”

His comments drew outrage from many Puerto Ricans, with social media videos showing San Juan residents leaning out of apartment windows banging pots and pans.

The publication on July 13 of sexist and homophobic chat messages between Rossello and top aides unleashed simmering resentment over his handling of devastating hurricanes in 2017, alleged corruption in his administration, and the island’s bankruptcy process.

“‘#Resign Ricky isn’t just a call for him to resign from the party, but from his seat as the top official,” Linda Michelle, an industrial engineer and Puerto Rico radio personality, tweeted on Sunday. “Whoever wasn’t sure about going to the march tomorrow has now made up their mind to go.”

“POWER OF THE PEOPLE”

Puerto Rico’s nonvoting representative to the U.S. Congress, as well as Democratic presidential candidates and lawmakers, have called for the governor to step aside after nine days of sometimes violent protests.

“Once again: Rossell must resign,” U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York tweeted on Sunday in response to his video.

But Puerto Rico’s Senate President Thomas Rivera Schatz, who may take over leadership of the pro-statehood PNP, said Rossello’s actions “put an end to part of the controversies and trauma hitting our people”.

Puerto Rico House Speaker Carlos Mendez, also of the PNP, appointed an independent panel on Friday to investigate whether the chats warranted impeachment.

“I welcome the process started by the legislative assembly, which I will confront with complete truth,” Rossello said in the video.

The political turmoil comes at a critical stage in the island’s bankruptcy process as it tries to restructure some $120 billion in debt and pension obligations.

It has also raised concerns among U.S. lawmakers who are weighing the island’s requests for billions of federal dollars for healthcare and work to recover from Hurricane Maria, which led to nearly 3,000 deaths.

Opposing Rossello are a raft of Puerto Rican celebrities ranging from singer Ricky Martin and rapper Bad Bunny to “Hamilton” creator Lin-Manuel Miranda.

Martin, a target of the governor’s chats, said he would march with protesters on Monday.

“I want to feel the power of the people,” Martin, 47, said in a Facebook video, urging legislative leaders to start an impeachment process.

(Reporting by Andrew Hay in Taos, New Mexico; Additional reporting by Luis Valentin Ortiz in San Juan, Karen Pierog in Chicago, Zach Fagenson in Miami and Rich McKay in Atlanta; Editing by Kevin Liffey and Jonathan Oatis)

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)

Tropical Storm Gordon hits southern Florida, spins toward U.S. Gulf Coast

FILE PHOTO: Homes sit on the edge of the Gulf of Mexico in the Myrtle Grove Estates development in Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana, U.S. October 7, 2017. REUTERS/Jessica Resnick-Ault/File Photo

By Jon Herskovitz and Rich McKay

(Reuters) – A tropical storm whipped the southern tip of Florida with high winds and rain on Monday morning and was forecast to gain strength as it passed over the Gulf of Mexico toward Louisiana, officials said.

Tropical Storm Gordon was forecast to drop as much as 8 inches (20 cm) of rain in some areas of the U.S. South still reeling from hurricanes a year ago.

The storm was generating winds of 45 miles per hour (72 km/h) on Monday as it steamed west-northwest at 17 miles an hour (27 km/h), National Hurricane Center Director Kenneth Graham said in a video briefing on Facebook.

“It looks like for the next three or four days we’re going to be having to really watch close,” Graham said, “and remember if you’re even inland you can get some of these heavy rainfall totals so now is the time to be prepared.”

Last year, hurricanes walloped Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico, causing thousands of deaths, hundreds of billions of dollars in damage, massive power outages and devastation to hundreds of thousands of structures.

The National Hurricane Center warned of high winds around parts of Florida as the storm passed over the southern tip of the state on Monday morning.

The storm was expected to strengthen over the Gulf of Mexico, and reach the central Gulf Coast states of Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana late on Tuesday, the National Hurricane Center said.

At the mouth of the Mississippi River, around the area of New Orleans, the storm could generate a surge of up to 4 feet (1 meter) and smaller surges could hit coastland along other parts of the Gulf Coast, Graham said.

“The combination of a dangerous storm surge and the tide will cause normally dry areas near the coast to be flooded by rising waters moving inland from the shoreline,” the National Hurricane Center said in a statement.

Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards said on Sunday he had activated the state’s Crisis Action Team as a precaution.

There were no immediate indications that the storm had affected energy operations in the Gulf of Mexico area.

(Reporting by Rich McKay in Atlanta, Alex Dobuzinskis in Los Angeles; Editing by Frank McGurty and Andrea Ricci)

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)