Flanked by Puerto Rican officials at a conference nearly two weeks after disaster struck the island, Donald Trump told locals to be "thankful" for Hurricane Maria’s death count.
"Every death is a horror, but if you look at a real catastrophe like Katrina and you look at the tremendous – hundreds and hundreds of people that died," he said. "Sixteen versus literally thousands of people. You can be very proud. Everybody watching can really be very proud of what's taken place in Puerto Rico."
The US government has quietly walked back the president’s statements since then, adding onto an ever-increasing number of deaths related to the catastrophic hurricane.
However, the actual number is far higher than the government's official count of 64, according to a draft report the Puerto Rican government submitted to Congress this week, which puts the total amount of deaths over 1,400.
The report acknowledges 1,427 people were killed after Hurricane Maria ripped through Puerto Rico, while detailing a $139bn reconstruction plan for the island that has yet to fully recover.
"The hurricanes' devastating effects on people's health and safety cannot be overstated," the Puerto Rican government writes in its report. "Although the official death count from the Puerto Rico Department of Public Safety was initially 64, the toll appears to be much higher."
"According to initial reports, 64 lives were lost. That estimate was later revised to 1,427," the report continues.
The draft report is one of several studies and reviews currently underway to determine the most accurate number of deaths related to Hurricane Maria. A Harvard University study has put the death toll anywhere between 800 and 8,500. George Washington University school of public health study commissioned by Puerto Rican Governor Ricardo Rosselló is expected to be published later this month.
Pedro Cerame, a spokesperson for the Puerto Rican government’s Federal Affairs Administration, described the draft report death count as “realistic” in an interview with the New York Times.
“We don’t want to say it out loud or publicize it as an official number,” he said. ”The official number will come, and it could be close. But until we see the study, and have the accuracy, we won’t be able to recognize the number as official.”
Numerous victims were killed in the storm, along with hundreds who likely passed away while lacking access to medical services and other necessities.
The vast majority of the island lacked power and basic resources in the days and weeks following the hurricane.
Now, the island is requesting $26bn to overhaul its outdated energy grid, as well as $15bn towards the Department of Education and $6bn to repair public buildings. The draft report also details how at least $3.9bn will be used towards environmental restoration projects.
In a statement, Mr Rosselló said “Puerto Rico has a unique opportunity to innovate and rebuild the Puerto Rico that we all want.”
For now, it remains unclear whether the federal government will accept the new figures and update its official death count. The White House did not respond to multiple requests for comment.