Puerto Rico Death Toll Rises to 34 as Wasp Amphib Arrives

The amphibious assault ship USS Wasp (LHD 1) conducts a replenishment-at-sea alongside the fast combat support ship USNS Supply (T-AOE-6), Sept. 26, 2017. (U.S. Navy photo/Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Levingston Lewis)
The amphibious assault ship USS Wasp (LHD 1) conducts a replenishment-at-sea alongside the fast combat support ship USNS Supply (T-AOE-6), Sept. 26, 2017. (U.S. Navy photo/Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Levingston Lewis)

The confirmed death toll in Puerto Rico has risen to 34 from Hurricane Maria and its aftermath two weeks after the storm devastated the island, the U.S. territory's Gov. Ricardo Rosello said Wednesday.

Rosello made the announcement that the death toll had more than doubled from 16 to 34 at a San Juan news briefing as the amphibious assault ship Wasp arrived offshore to aid in the relief effort.

The Wasp was joining the amphibious assault ship Kearsarge, the transport dock Oak Hill, the hospital ship USNS Comfort and at least 14 other Navy and Coast Guard vessels that have assembled off Puerto Rico.

Rosello's announcement came a day after he told President Donald Trump during his visit Tuesday that the death toll stood at 16. Trump said that Puerto Ricans should be "proud" of the low death toll compared to the "hundreds and hundreds and hundreds" of deaths in Hurricane Katrina on the Gulf Coast in 2005.

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Rosello said he was able to certify the 34 deaths after communications were restored and accurate counts were confirmed with hospitals and morgues around the island.

Nineteen people were killed directly by the storm in drownings and mudslides, or by being hit by debris in the sustained winds of more than 150 mph that hit the island on Sept. 20, Rosello said.

Fifteen others died indirectly from Hurricane Maria, some from lack of medical care and some from poor conditions in hospitals that were without power or fuel for generators, Rosello said.

"We were not able to aggregate this complete set of data before," Rosello said, but the island's government now has "a more complete picture of what has occurred in terms of direct deaths due to the storm and indirect as well."

Rosello also estimated the Puerto Rico suffered an estimated $90 billion in damage from the storm, and renewed his call for Congress to pass an immediate aid package.

Trump's behavior and his remarks during his visit to San Juan and the Kearsarge rekindled his feud with San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz and led to street protests by Puerto Ricans in New York City.

During a visit to a church, Trump flipped paper towels to a crowd and repeatedly praised the relief effort on an island where more than 90 percent of the 3.4 million U.S. citizen residents still lack power and more than half have no access to safe drinking water.

"I think it's now acknowledged what a great job we've done, and people are looking at that," Trump said.

Yulin Cruz called Trump's visit a public relations stunt and charged that he failed to consult with the island's mayors.

"And in fact, this terrible and abominable view of him throwing paper towels and throwing provisions at people -- it does not embody the spirit of the American nation," Yulin Cruz said on MSNBC. "He was insulting to the people of Puerto Rico."

Trump's later remarks in an interview with Fox News that his administration could wipe out Puerto Rico's $73 billion in outstanding debts also rattled Wall St. markets and caught Rosello by surprise.

"That is the president's opinion," Rosselló said. "I am concerned only with actions and not words. I am concerned with getting the people of Puerto Rico what they need."

In the interview, Trump told Geraldo Rivera, a Fox News correspondent, that Puerto Rico owes "a lot of money to your friends on Wall Street, and we're going to have to wipe that out. You can say goodbye to that. I don't know if it's Goldman Sachs, but whoever it is, you can wave goodbye to that."

Trump administration officials later had to dial back on the president's remarks. White House Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney said on CNN of Trump's remarks that "I wouldn't take it word for word with that."

He said that "Puerto Rico's going to have to figure out how to fix the errors that it's made for the last generation on its own finances."

U.S. Northern command, which has been overseeing the military's response in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, said in a statement that the number of active-duty personnel on the ground and offshore involved in the relief effort had increased since Sunday by an additional 2,400 personnel, bringing the total to 5,700.

Marines from the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit based at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, and sailors from ships offshore had also cleared about 42 miles of road through Tuesday in Puerto Rico to allow for the distribution of aid, NorthCom said.

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.

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