The number of deaths related to Hurricane Maria exceeds the 16 that the government has officially accounted for so far, Puerto Rico Public Safety Secretary Héctor Pesquera acknowledged in an interview with the Center for Investigative Journalism.
The acknowledgment comes after Pesquera spent several days on a media tour denying an earlier report by the center, known by the Spanish acronym CPI, that dozens of people have died in circumstances related to the storm and that many of the bodies are accumulating in morgues in 69 island hospitals.
As of Monday, at least 30 people remain missing and their names have been reported to the Puerto Rico Police Department.
“I believe there are more dead, but I don’t have reports telling me [for example] eight died in Mayagüez because they lacked oxygen, that four died in San Pablo because they did not receive dialysis,” Pesquera said.
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Meanwhile, he said the federal government would bring 10 morgue-containers to add 360 additional spaces for bodies to the 295 slots available at the Institute of Forensics Sciences (ICF in Spanish). Additionally, there are 41 forensic pathologists from the U.S. Department of Health on their way to Puerto Rico to provide support to the overloaded operation, Pesquera said.
The CPI has learned that ICF’s area to receive and release corpses at the government Medical Center where several of those containers are already located has been militarized with tanks and troops from the United States Mortuary Affairs Unit.
Pesquera, who was on the defensive in his answers on the subject, also acknowledged that there are still places without communication, and that it is possible that more people have died in those places and that the government still does not know it. He also acknowledged that there may be victims among the patients who were without support services, since 70% of the hospitals had to close due to Maria’s immediate impact.
“I absolutely agree,” he said in response to the CPI’s reporting.
Sources from nine hospitals, police and various mayors’ offices, told the CPI last week that the official death toll from Hurricane Maria was wrong and that there were at least several dozen additional victims, possibly hundreds.
The sources indicated that the morgues at many hospitals were at full capacity, information that was confirmed by Health Secretary Rafael Rodríguez-Mercado, who also said that at least three hospitals in the western area had notified him of seven additional hurricane victims and that there were reports of people who had buried relatives in mass graves given the impossibility of communication and transportation due to the storm. After that interview with the CPI, Rodríguez-Mercado stopped making public statements on the matter and his spokesman, Peter Quiñones, said all statements would be made by the governor’s Chief of Staff, Ramón Rosario.
Pesquera said on Friday he had gathered hospital executives in the face of concerns about the information released by the CPI and that everyone told him there was no accumulation of corpses in their morgues. However, that same day, sources at two hospitals — Doctor’s Hospital and the Veterans Hospital — told the CPI media outlet that the military had shown up in their institutions to remove bodies. At the Veterans Hospital, for example, there were 26 corpses.
When Pesquera was asked why the government insists on keeping the death toll at 16 nearly two weeks after the hurricane — and following multiple reports of additional victims — he said they have not added additional victims to the official list because death certificates from deaths that occurred during those days have yet to be released. Nor has it been possible to analyze the information to determine which were natural deaths and which were deaths related to Hurricane Maria, he said.
“I’m not saying it has not happened, I’m saying we can only certify what we know,” Pesquera said. “When that information arrives, we will validate it. I’m not going to hide any numbers. I’m not going to hide any data.”.
Like so many other services in Puerto Rico in the storm’s aftermath, the death registry system completely collapsed. Without the death certificates, the corpses could not be removed from hospital morgues.
Secretary Rodríguez-Mercado told the CPI last week that some employees had returned to work to begin emptying out hospital morgues. On Friday, a CPI source said that only 22 of the 42 Demographic Registrar’s offices were open and employees were certifying the deceased manually because, as with most of the island, they still did not have electricity or computer systems.
The source estimated that last week they certified more than 250 deaths. Still unknown is how many of these deaths will ultimately be attributed to Hurricane Maria.
Meanwhile, Pesquera urged citizens with relatives who were still missing to go to their City Hall or their nearest police station to report it.
As of Monday, the police had 29 people reported missing in the regions of San Juan, Arecibo, Caguas, Carolina, Utuado, Ponce and Mayagüez.
The Center for Investigative Journalism (CPI), located at the School of Law at Interamerican University of Puerto Rico, is an independent, nonprofit organization that promotes and defends the citizens’ right of access to information through journalistic research, education and the promotion of transparency of public and private authorities.