Puerto Rico to review official hurricane death count of 64 amid claims it's missing over a thousand victims

The official death toll lists 64 confirmed fatalities from the storm

Clark Mindock
New York
Monday 18 December 2017 17:48 GMT
A man wades through floodwaters in Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria's landfall in September
A man wades through floodwaters in Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria's landfall in September (Getty)

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Louise Thomas

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After months insisting that the official death toll in Puerto Rico as a result of Hurricane Maria was accurate, the governor of the island has ordered a review of every death there.

The decision to take a fresh look at the death toll comes in response to mounting evidence that the official tally — 64 deaths — is greatly undercounted. Officials will now take a look at all deaths attributed to natural causes following the Sept 20 landfall of the hurricane, which knocked out power to 3.4 million Puerto Ricans, some of whom are still without power months later.

That prolonged power outage is critical to the argument that the official death tally is low. The blackout made the regular operation of critical medical treatment for some of the most vulnerable patients on the island incredibly difficult. As a result, some bedridden patients or patients dependent on dialysis or respirators may have died as a result of the storm — albeit not from direct impacts like flood drownings.

“This is about more than numbers, theses are lives: real people, leaving behind loved ones and families,” Governor Ricardo A Russelló said in a statement.

Outside estimates by news organisations have shown that as many as 1,065 people died as a result of conditions created by the storm. That estimate was compiled by Puerto Rico’s Centre of Investigative Journalism. Others, by the New York Times, indicate that 1,052 people died. A CNN estimate found that there were at least 499 more deaths than reflected in the official tally.

The 64-person-count is likely a reflection of varying methods for counting deaths following a hurricane disaster like Maria. State and local governments keep tabs in different ways. Some, for example, only count direct deaths, like those who die in flood waters. Still, the count in Puerto Rico isn’t restrictive, and the medical examiner has included deaths indirectly caused by the storm as well including suicides.

While the leading cause of death on the island in September were diseases like diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease, the island did see a surge in deaths from sepsis this year, a complication of infection that can be connected to slow medical treatment or unsanitary living conditions.

Recounting the deaths will require the government to interview family of the deceased to determine if the deaths were the result of the unusual conditions left behind by the storm.

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