During a briefing with officials in Puerto Rico Tuesday, President Trump said the United States island territory should be “proud” that more people haven’t died, comparing Puerto Rico’s current official Hurricane Maria death toll — 16 — to “the tremendous hundreds and hundreds and hundreds that died” in Hurricane Katrina.
But according to reports from the Center for Investigative Journalism (CPI in Spanish), the number of fatal disaster victims exceeds the official count.
In an interview between CPI reporter Omaya Sosa Pascual and Puerto Rico public safety secretary Héctor Pesquera last week, the government official admitted he believed more to be dead, but that he doesn’t have reports telling him, for example, that “eight died in Mayagüez because they lacked oxygen, that four died in San Pablo because they did not receive dialysis.”
But, he told Pascual, the federal government was working to add 360 additional spaces for bodies to the 295 available spaces at the Institute of Forensics Sciences, and that the U.S. Department of Health will send 41 forensic pathologists to Puerto Rico.
“There were at least several dozen additional victims, possibly hundreds,” Pascual reported, citing sources from nine hospitals, police, morgue directors and others in Puerto Rico.
Another official, health secretary Rafael Rodríguez-Mercado confirmed that at least three hospitals had notified him of additional victims. According to Pascual, hospital staff told the health secretary some people had buried their family members in mass graves “given the impossibility of communication and transportation due to María’s impact.”
“Everything in the government has collapsed,” Pascual told Vox. “Some of the people who work in the government lost their homes themselves and aren’t at work. So they can’t do death certificates. The dead can’t be documented because of all the logistics and legal aspects of declaring someone dead.”
Pesquera also noted that without the proper communication and lack of death certificates, it hasn’t been possible to analyze which deaths were natural or due to the disaster.
When he gathered hospital executives after CPI released the report last week, they told him there was no accumulation of corpses in their morgues.
But the Doctor’s Hospital and the Veterans Hospital told CPI media that the military had shown up to remove bodies at their institutions. At the Veterans Hospital, there were 26 corpses.
“I’m not saying it has not happened, I’m saying we can only certify what we know. When that information arrives, we will validate it. I’m not going to hide any numbers. I’m not going to hide any data,” he said, and added that the process could take months.
It’s the duty of the mayors, those closest to the citizens, to collect the information, Pesquera said. He also urged people to report missing persons to their nearest police station or City Hall.
On Monday, Pascual reported, there were 30 people missing at the Puerto Rico Police Department.
Read more from Pascual at periodismoinvestigativo.com.