Puerto Rico's Maria Death Toll Climbs to 36, Governor Says

Pam Wright
Published: October 6, 2017

After nearly a week of not increasing, Puerto Rico's official death toll from Hurricane Maria rose to 36 Tuesday, according to the island's governor. 

Authorities say the actual number of deaths may far exceed what is being reported.

When the official death toll on the U.S. territory stood at 16, an investigative reporter with the Center for Investigative Journalism (CPI) discovered that as many as 60 people or more may have died from the storm that devasted the island on Sept. 20.

Doubting the government's reports, investigative reporter Omaya Sosa Pascual with CPI called 69 hospitals and asked about the number of deaths at each facility. Speaking with doctors, administrators, morgue directors and funeral directors, she determined that at least 28 people had died

After that report, the country's secretary of public security, Hector Pesquera, confirmed to Pascual on Monday that the official death toll reported by the government did not reflect the actual number of dead.

Pesquera told the reporter that one of the problems is unsigned death certificates. Without an individual's death certificate, they cannot be counted on the official death toll.

“Everything in the government has collapsed,” Pascual told Vox.com by phone. “Some of the people who work in the government lost their homes themselves and aren’t at work. So they can’t do death certificates. The dead can’t be documented because of all the logistics and legal aspects of declaring someone dead.”

(MORE: Florida Gov. Rick Scott Declares State of Emergency to Help Puerto Rico Recovery Efforts)

The lack of internet services and downed telephone lines make it difficult for remote areas to report deaths. In some cases, family members have buried the dead without a death certificate. 

“We’re finding dead people, people who have been buried. Related to the hurricane (we have) 19 dead, which the governor reported, but [people] have made common graves. We’ve been told people have buried their family members because they’re in places that have yet to be reached,” Pesquera told CPI.

Pesquera also noted that the names of the dead will not be revealed until relatives can be notified, a difficult task in some cases considering the lack of communication on the island.

Pascual said it's also becoming difficult to decipher whether a person died from natural causes or as a result of the hurricane. 

In any case, the number of cadavers is mounting as people in critical conditions die because there is no power still and because doctors and nurses are unable to work. 

This week, the official death toll of 16 prompted President Donald Trump to praise the government's response, which could prove to be a premature assessment.

“The loss of life — it’s always tragic — but it’s been incredible the results that we’ve had with respect to loss of life,” Trump told reporters at the White House. “People can’t believe how successful that has been, relatively speaking.”

While the final death toll may never be fully known, some experts say that it is likely to reach into the hundreds, including John Mutter, a disaster expert at Columbia University.

Carmen Yulín Cruz, mayor of Puerto Rico’s capital San Juan, gave an emotional plea on Friday that may also hint that the death toll will turn out to be far greater than what is being reported. 

“I am begging, begging anyone who can hear us to save us from dying,” she said. “If anybody out there is listening to us, we are dying, and you are killing us with the inefficiency and the bureaucracy.”


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