Puerto Rico’s death toll from Hurricane Maria could be substantially higher than the 45 fatalities reported by the government, experts said.
Nearly 90% of Puerto Rico remains without power, while many of the island’s 3.4 million residents are lacking proper shelter or clean drinking water weeks after Hurricane Maria struck.
Adding to the headache are communication breakdowns that some experts believe is keeping the officially reported death toll astonishingly lower — possibly by hundreds.
In a letter to the Department of Homeland Security, Reps. Nydia Velasquez (D-NY) and Bennie Thompson (D-MS) said they’re concerned the death toll in Puerto Rico is being “woefully underreported,” and demanded an urgent review, citing reports that up to 450 people may have died.
“It would be morally reprehensible to intentionally underreport the true death toll to portray relief efforts as more successful than they are. If, on the contrary, this information has benignly been muddled due to a lack of capacity on the island, then the Federal government must work hand-in-hand with Puerto Rico’s government to provide a clearer assessment,” the letter said.
That could take some time.
Maria Santiago de Jesus, wife of Ciales Mayor Luis Maldonado, said the communications system is down through the city, which is located about 45 minutes inland from San Juan.
“It takes us three to four days to get any kind of information or announcements about what’s happening,” Santiago de Jesus told the Daily News.
An analysis by Vox published Wednesday found Puerto Rico’s hurricane death toll closer to 81, citing news reports and statements by local officials.
Both post-storm illnesses and accidents will boost the numbers even further, along with proper death reporting once rural areas can be contacted or accessed, one expert said.
“Getting any kind of big picture information with almost anything to do with this disaster is extremely difficult,” said Dr. Irwin Redlener, a physician and director of Columbia University’s National Center for Disaster Preparedness.
Hurricane Maria strikes Puerto Rico after pummeling Caribbean
“A lot of the places where there are going to be significant fatalities are isolated,” he continued.
All storm-related deaths — either directly or indirectly because of Maria’s wrath — are currently being confirmed by the Institute of Forensic Science.
What local leaders, funeral homes and news outlets aren’t recording isn’t necessarily factored in, according to news outlets.
Instead, bodies have to be brought to San Juan, or an examiner has to venture to areas to confirm if a death was storm related.
“We try to consult all of the parties who can consult in the analysis of deaths related directly or indirectly to the hurricane,” Department of Public Safety spokeswoman Karixia Ortiz told HuffPost last week.
Among those that didn’t make the official count are eight of the nine fatalities reported in Toa Baja, Vox noted.
Two funeral homes previously told Buzzfeed News that 18 people died from the storm — either directly or indirectly — but only one person killed in a landslide was factored in, the Vox analysis found.
Citizens have died from a number of post-storm causes such as failing medical help, landslides, falling debris and illnesses such as leptospirosis, which is spread through drinking water tainted by animal urine.
Coupling those effects with the immediate deaths from Maria has presented a catastrophe for the island, Redlener told the News.
“All of this represents a very significant public health threat,” he said. “A significant and complex health threat for Puerto Rico.”
The island’s government doesn’t fully have a handle on the death toll as a result, he added, “Nobody has that at the moment.”
Communications have marred most relief efforts in Puerto Rico.
“In every town we were in we said, ‘can we call you to bring you some aid’ and they laugh at us because there is no cell phone,” said Dr. Alison Thompson, a fulltime humanitarian worker. “We are moving so fast in technology but in disaster zones we have to put one foot in the past.”
Volunteer rescue workers also say that the death toll far exceeds official estimates.
A number of those workers have reported that the morgue in Aguadilla — a coastal town in northwest Puerto Rico — was closed because it could no longer accommodate bodies.
Numerous sources said 400 to 500 bodies were in the town’s morgue, and FEMA was sending in freezers to have bodies removed from the facility. FEMA didn’t immediately return a request for comment.
El Vocero reported last week that another 350 bodies were in the Institute of Forensic Science’s morgue, but it remained unclear how many were from the storm.
While FEMA and other agencies arrived in Puerto Rico before the storm, the Trump administration has been under fire for delays in activating the military response.
Redlener — who made a one-day trip a week after the storm — said ramped up military presence would help better determine how many died.
But the further away the relief efforts get from the storm, the tougher it might be to gauge its impact, experts said.
“We are not seeing a lot of (nongovernmental organizations) and that’s worrisome because the best response usually comes during the first two months and then they are gone in the third month,” Thompson said.