President Trump was notably pleased about Puerto Rico’s low death toll after Hurricane Maria– but no one knows better than Puerto Ricans themselves that the number is actually much higher than the official tally of 55. It’s been terribly difficult, though, to get a more accurate count because the damage Maria caused has made everything, including communication, a logistical nightmare on the island. Now Hector M. Pesquera, secretary of Puerto Rico’s Department of Public Safety, is begging the island’s funeral directors to help him get the numbers right:
“As I have expressed since the beginning of the emergency, any citizen or relative who has evidence or proof that a death is directly or indirectly related to Hurricane Maria, and still has not been accounted for, can send information for our consideration to investigate.”
There’s one major problem, however. Only the Bureau of Forensic Sciences in San Juan has the final say about whether a death is hurricane-related or not. But mass-cremations have eliminated evidence that could help that lab develop a more accurate count. Those cremations were authorized by the government when funeral homes said a death was due to natural causes, even without further pathology or examination. As of the end of October, Buzzfeed found that close to a thousand dead are in categorical limbo, their cause of death in question.
Back then, Pesquera was adamant the death toll of fifty-odd souls was accurate. San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz believes that his sudden interest in getting the death toll right is thanks to outside scrutiny from the press. In addition to Buzzfeed, Puerto Rico’s Center for Investigative Journalism and CNN have all tried to dig deeper into the real death toll, talking to families who stayed about what they’ve seen, how many funerals have been held, and how the government has handled accounting.
Mayor Cruz cited CNN’s latest story on the discrepancies in a Monday night tweet that read, “Now we know why officials in PR Government are asking funeral homes for the info: true journalism.” Unfortunately, what those journalists are uncovering (and what Pesquera is now admitting) is that we may never have an accurate count of just how many Hurricane Maria killed.