Everything that’s been reported about deaths in Puerto Rico is at odds with the official count

By Eliza Barclay

We took a look at the numbers and they didn’t add up.

Death tolls are the primary way that we understand the impact of a disaster. And for nearly two weeks after Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, as a humanitarian crisis was intensifying, the death toll was frozen at 16.

“16 people certified,” Trump said on October 3 during his visit to the island, repeating a figure confirmed by the territory’s governor. “Everybody watching can really be very proud of what’s taken place in Puerto Rico.”

It was a moment that crystalized two conflicting narratives about the Puerto Rico disaster. The first one, from the federal government and Puerto Rico’s governor, is of a disaster that’s been managed well, with lives being saved and hospitals getting back up and running.

Lives surely have been saved in the response. But images and reports from the ground tell a story of people, cut off from basic supplies and health care, dying. They tell of hospitals running out of medication and fuel for their generators and struggling to keep up with the “avalanche of patients that came after the hurricane,” as one journalist put it.

The death toll from the hurricane is now up to 45, according to Gov. Ricardo Rosselló. But 90 percent of the 3.4 million American citizens on the island still don’t have power, and 35 percent still don’t have water to drink or bathe in. And given how deadly power outages can be, 45 deaths seems low, according to disaster experts.

 Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Electricity had still not been restored in Utuado, Puerto Rico, on October 6.

At Vox we decided to compare what the government has been saying with other reports of deaths from the ground. We searched Google News for reports of deaths in English and Spanish media from Puerto Rico since Hurricane Maria. We found reports of a total of 81 deaths linked directly or indirectly to the hurricane. Of those, 45 were the deaths certified by the government. The remaining 36 deaths were confirmed by local public officials or funeral directors, according to the reports. We also found another 450 reported deaths, most of causes still unknown, and reports of at least 69 people still missing.

The broader issue here relates to how storm deaths are counted. There are clear deaths from the storm, clear deaths indirectly from the storm, and then deaths that are harder to determine — for instance, a sick patient who died in a hospital experiencing frequent power outages. And then there’s the issue of how effective authorities are at finding and investigating the deaths to make sure they’re included in the count. The breakdown of these categories suggests that the government is being much more cautious in designating deaths as directly or indirectly hurricane related, given the public information available.

At a Sunday news conference, Karixia Ortiz, press officer for the Department of Public Safety, said that “every death must be confirmed by the Institute of Forensic Science, which means either the bodies have to be brought to San Juan to do an autopsy or a medical examiner must be dispatched to the local municipality to verify the death,” according to an audio recording obtained by Huffington Post.

John Mutter, a disaster researcher at Columbia University who studied the death toll in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, says he’s skeptical of this methodology. “This is the way to go about it if you want to come up with smallest number possible,” he said, adding he suspects the death toll in Puerto Rico from Maria should already be in the hundreds based on what’s known about the conditions on the ground.

Our review of reports certainly suggests the real death toll is far higher than what the government has, thus far, suggested:

  • In our search of local and US news reports, we found 36 deaths attributed to the hurricane in addition to the official 43. We cross-checked news accounts with the official death reports to make sure they didn’t overlap.
  • National Public Radio reported an additional 49 bodies with unidentified cause of death sent to a hospital morgue since the storm.
  • Los Angeles Times reported 50 more deaths than normal in one region in the three days after the hurricane.
  • Puerto Rico’s Center for Investigative Reporting reported 69 hospital morgues are at “capacity.” Exact figure is unknown.
  • According to El Vocero newspaper, 350 bodies are being stored at the Institute of Forensic Sciences (equivalent to the state medical examiner’s office), many of which are still awaiting autopsies. In the report, Héctor Pesquera, secretary of the Puerto Rico Department of Public Safety, did not say how many, if any, of the cadavers were there before the storm. (On Sunday, Pesquera denied claims that there was a backlog of unexamined bodies.)

“I don’t think there will be hundreds of deaths, but we will see,” Pesquera told reporters on Sunday. “We can’t speculate if there will be 100 or 200.”

Meanwhile, the situation on the ground remains life threatening in some areas. And reporters and first responders are continuing to paint a much more aggressive picture about life and death on the island.

“It’s horrible, it’s horrible. It’s a nightmare,” a resident of the town of Atlaya told CBS on Tuesday. “There’s barely any drinking water, not even in supermarkets, my fear is for my kids,” another said.

Given the disparity in storylines, it’s worth taking a hard look at the numbers.

The best way to count storm deaths, according to a disaster researcher

There are no state or federal guidelines in the US for calculating storm death tolls for the medical examiners usually responsible for determining what constitutes a storm-related death. (And partly because many storm-related deaths aren’t recorded by the systems in place, the “official” Hurricane Katrina death toll is widely regarded as inaccurately low.)

Because we’ve had trouble reaching officials in …read more

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