The official death toll in Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria currently stands at 51, a suspiciously low number given the devastation seen across the island. But a new report confirms that after the hurricane hit on Sept. 20, an additional 911 bodies have been cremated and the cause of death in each case was labeled “natural causes.”
On Friday, BuzzFeed reported that the Puerto Rican government “allowed 911 bodies to be cremated since Hurricane Maria made landfall, and that not one of them were physically examined by a government medical examiner to determine if it should be included in the official death toll.”
The admission follows a troubling investigation published earlier the same day that showed that funeral directors and crematoriums in Puerto Rico were allowed by the government to cremate bodies of people who died in the wake of the hurricane without the appropriate medical and forensic examinations that would determine if they should be considered victims of the natural disaster.
The effects of this oversight are astounding—not only would it mean that the official death toll might have been grossly understated for both political and bureaucratic reasons, but also that families of those who died wouldn’t be eligible for relief from U.S. federal agencies, including FEMA, BuzzFeed’s Nidhi Prakash reported from Puerto Rico.
Officials apparently ruled that these hundreds of deaths were attributable to “natural causes” based on records reviews alone.
After visits to communities outside the capital of San Juan, BuzzFeed concluded, among other things, that:
· Communication between the central institute certifying official hurricane deaths, called the Institute of Forensic Sciences, and funeral homes or crematoriums appears to be fully broken, with each side waiting for the other to take action.
· The central institute is also giving crematoriums permission to burn bodies of potential hurricane victims — which is happening more because it is cheaper and logistically easier as families rebuild their lives — without examining them first, which means they are not being counted in the official death toll.
An expert on how the death toll count was handled after Hurricane Katrina, John Mutter, told the news site that in Puerto Rico, it appeared the numbers were being intentionally understated.
Democratic senators Elizabeth Warren and Richard Blumenthal called the latest developments “extremely troubling” and demanded an investigation. Top Democratic senators already had written Department of Homeland Security Acting Secretary Elaine Duke earlier this month calling for an accurate hurricane-related death count.
“The need for an accurate death toll is especially important because President Trump seems to be using the number of fatalities to determine the quality of the disaster response,” the letter stated, according to The Hill.
This followed an earlier series of tweets by President Trump that warned that FEMA and first responders couldn’t remain in Puerto Rico “forever.”