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Puerto Rico’s Hurricane Death Toll Much Higher Than the Official Count

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Puerto Rico’s Hurricane Death Toll Much Higher Than the Official Count

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Puerto Rico’s Hurricane Death Toll Much Higher Than the Official Count

by
Eric Ortiz
Managing Editor
Eric Ortiz is the managing editor of Truthdig. A journalist and innovator with two decades in digital media, Ortiz founded the mobile app startup Evrybit, a live storytelling and reporting tool, as a 2014 John…
Eric Ortiz

The numbers don't add up. While the government of Puerto Rico reports 55 people died from Hurricane Maria, the Center for Investigative Journalism (CPI) has identified 47 deaths related to the disaster. CPI tracked the death count over the last three weeks "through interviews with mayors, security officials and emergency management from the island’s municipalities, as well as interviews with relatives and a review of death certificates."

This investigation shows that the government has revictimized the relatives of people who have died due to circumstances linked to the emergency, forcing them to comply with bureaucratic requirements at a time when the government itself failed to comply with its obligations and, like the rest of Puerto Rico, was not fully operational. Some of these victims’ family members even had to spend days with the corpse of their loved one decomposing in a home because the police or prosecutors never arrived to remove the body, as documented by the CPI.

... Last week, the government finally released death figures for September and they said that there [were] 427 more deaths than in September of 2016. They also showed that in the 10 days after María, there was an increase of 43% in Puerto Rico’s daily average deaths.

However, the government has not linked this significant increase in deaths to the hurricane and maintains the official number of deaths related to the storm at 55. The figures for October, when the post-hurricane emergency was still in full swing, have not yet been reported, nor November, as the majority of the population continues without electricity.

In late October, according to BuzzFeed News, the Puerto Rican government said that 911 bodies were cremated since Sept. 20 (when Hurricane Maria made landfall), and none of the deaths were related to the storm. They all died of "natural causes."

CBS News correspondent David Begnaud explained how officials confirmed the number of cremations, Newsweek reported.

The statement from the Secretary of Public Safety read:

By law, the Bureau of Forensic Science must authorize all the cremation requests of the family members of the deceased. During the process, several documents are analyzed: the death summary, the death certificate, the ballot, the medical summary or document that certifies or gives evidence of the cause of death, and the form that the family completes for requesting a cremation. This form also establishes if the family member agrees or doesn’t agree with the circumstance of the death. In that sense, the 911 authorizations of cremations during the previously established period are of natural deaths at the time of specific evaluation and there was no suspicion that would stop the requested process

At this point, according to The Washington Post, experts believe we may never know the real number of deaths caused by the hurricane.

One of the unofficial victims was 82-year-old Teodoro Colón, whose family also lost half their home. Watch Colón's story in the video above.

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