Puerto Rico is asking for help with its efforts to tally deaths from Hurricane Maria.
Héctor M. Pesquera, secretary of Puerto Rico’s Department of Public Safety, issued a statement Monday night imploring local funeral home directors to provide the government with more information about possible hurricane-related deaths.
“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,” said Pesquera, whose department oversees the count.
The statement follows an investigation into the death toll by CNN, which found dozens if not hundreds of deaths possibly related to the September 20 storm may be uncounted by the government. CNN surveyed 112 funeral homes across the US territory; and funeral home directors identified 499 deaths they claimed were related to Hurricane Maria.
That’s nine times the official death toll, which is 55.
We were able to collect information from only about half the island’s funeral homes.
“Currently, no funeral home has provided the government with specific information of a death case believed to be related to the event that they believe should be added to those already counted,” Pesquera’s statement says.
Funeral home directors, however, helped us look into a handful of particular cases in which family members believe their loved ones died in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria and were not counted by the government.
José Rafael Sánchez Román, 71, for example, had a heart attack or stroke during the storm’s impact and died, according to his family. Family members were unable to get help from emergency responders. In an interview with CNN, Pesquera conceded that such a situation should be counted as part of the hurricane death toll if the details can be confirmed.
Pesquera told CNN the government is open to revising its official number and would look into this and other cases. His office confirmed Monday’s statement was issued in response to CNN’s reporting.
“Now we know why officials in PR Government are asking funeral homes for the info: true journalism,” San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz wrote in a tweet on Monday night. The mayor has been a critic of the official death toll.
Only one lab in Puerto Rico – the Bureau of Forensic Sciences in San Juan – can certify deaths as hurricane-related. Pesquera said the lab has been following the law and has been guided by rigorous science.
Funeral home directors are not trained pathologists, and are not able to certify deaths as hurricane-related. They do, however, have access to documentation, including death certificates. They often speak with family members about the circumstances of the death. We asked funeral home workers to consult their records before providing estimates. Several funeral homes declined to comment for our survey, others said they were uncomfortable making such estimates.
CNN’s investigation into Hurricane Maria’s death toll began in October with a survey of funeral homes in Arecibo, a municipality west of San Juan. Following that story, readers sent in tips to move our reporting forward.
Other news outlets, including Puerto Rico’s Center for Investigative Journalism and BuzzFeed, as well as some public officials also have raised questions about the accuracy of Puerto Rico’s official hurricane death toll.