The death toll in Puerto Rico isn’t being accurately documented or reported

Vox reports: Twelve days ago, Hurricane Maria trashed Puerto Rico, demolishing its already weak power, communications, and transportation infrastructure. The storm quickly gave way to a humanitarian crisis, with many of Puerto Rico’s residents struggling to access food, water, and fuel to run generators and cars. Help has been slow to arrive. And with each passing day, we’re learning more about the frightening conditions on the ground, from the sick being turned away from barely functioning hospitals to mothers desperate for water for their babies.

But one figure is disquietingly absent: an accurate death toll.

The official death count has not budged since Wednesday, when the Puerto Rican government said that just 16 people had been killed as a result of the storm. That prompted President Trump to claim Tuesday on his visit to the island that it wasn’t a “real catastrophe” like Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, which had thousands of deaths.

Yet there is good reason to believe the actual figure is much higher than 16, and will continue to climb.

Omaya Sosa Pascual is a reporter with the Center for Investigative Journalism (CPI) in San Juan. She was skeptical of the government’s figure of 16 and began to call the 69 hospitals around the country, asking them about deaths related to the hurricane.

Pascual spoke to dozens of doctors, administrators, morgue directors, and funeral directors around the country, and wrote up her initial findings in a September 28 report in the Miami Herald. She then got Puerto Rico’s public safety secretary to confirm Monday that there have been dozens more deaths than the official statistic reflects. By her count, there are now an estimated 60 confirmed deaths linked to the hurricane and possibly hundreds more to come.

So why has the government been so slow to document the dead? Is this a cover-up, or just an administrative casualty of the all-encompassing crisis?

One part of the answer is simple: The situation is so chaotic that death certificates aren’t being signed, which means deaths aren’t being officially recorded.

“Everything in the government has collapsed,” Pascual told me by phone from the parking lot of a San Juan medical center, one of the few places in the city where she said she could get a reliable cellphone signal. “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.”

Still, she said, “not being able to document it doesn’t mean it’s not happening.” [Continue reading…]

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