More than 900 Puerto Ricans died of “natural causes” unrelated to Hurricane Maria between September 20 and October 18, according to local authorities: a claim that has raised grave concerns about how the death toll from the devastating storm is being calculated.
After reviewing death summaries, death certificates and other documents, the Caribbean island’s Department of Public Safety (DPS) and Institute of Forensic Sciences (IFS) concluded that only a handful of the 911 people ordered to be cremated had died as a result of the devastating storm.
The statement was released by Karixia Ortiz Serrano, of the DPS, on Buzzfeed in response to claims by several morticians that bodies they had examined bore signs consistent with the storm being the cause of death.
Government officials, however, gave the go-ahead for 911 bodies to be cremated without first being assessed by pathologists or examined by any state-employed medical staff.
The official Puerto Rican death toll from Hurricane Maria still stands at 51, a figure that remains in dispute. Several legislators from the US have already called on the Department of Homeland Security “to provide all necessary resources to confirm that storm-related deaths are being counted correctly.”
The US senators questioned why 450 people reported killed in the hurricane have so far been excluded from the official death toll, along with 69 people who are still missing.
Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal, from Connecticut, said: "I intend to take any and all available steps to get to the bottom of the increasing appearance of misinformation in Hurricane Maria recovery efforts."
Serrano told Buzzfeed that current protocol dictates that no medical examination is required when a person is believed to have died from natural causes. “The process has not changed because of the emergency,” she said.
She also said that, although the IFS should be alerted if any medical professional suspects a death is related to the hurricane, the government currently has no criteria by which to make such an assessment.
Several morticians reported on Buzzfeed that at no point were they instructed by the authorities to inform the IFS about deaths potentially related to the hurricane.
The lack of official guidance is believed to have caused multiple inconsistencies in how cause of death is being recorded by morticians.
Hospital patients who died from oxygen starvation or dialysis failure during storm-induced power cuts have been recorded by some as hurricane-related, while others have recorded the cause as “natural”.
Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rosselló said in a press conference Friday he “didn't know the number, but certainly some of the deaths could have been for natural causes."