The official number of deaths in Puerto Rico attributed to Hurricane Maria is 55, but a new investigation by CNN estimates that the real figure is likely nine times higher — at least. CNN reporters arrived to this conclusion by conducting a survey of roughly half the funeral homes on the island, speaking with doctors and legislators, and interviewing everyday Puerto Ricans.
Data compiled from 112 funeral homes raised the number of hurricane-related deaths from 55 to 499. The bulk of these deaths were caused by the aftermath of the storm, including the lack of shelter, running water, food, medical treatment, and power. At least three people were reported to have committed suicide as a response to the storm.
The official death toll has been scrutinized by politicians and experts for weeks. Carmen Yulín Cruz, mayor of San Juan, said she believed the number of those who perished to be around 500. Columbia University professor John Mutter asserted that storms of Hurricane Maria’s strength typically take hundreds of lives. Eric Klinenberg, who directs New York University’s Institute for Public Knowledge, argued that the death toll may be even higher than the 499 figure CNN reporters arrived at, since surveys of funeral homes typically yield lower death counts for natural disasters.
“The cases where you have the body and the body gets taken to the funeral home almost always understate the real mortality,” said Klinenberg. “There’s always a significant number of bodies that don’t get processed through funeral homes. What that tells me [is that] there are a lot more cases to be reported – and that number is probably going to spike again.”
Nonetheless, the Puerto Rican government insists the official death toll is accurate. “In order to support her statement, [Cruz] needs to present the evidence,” said secretary of the Department of Public Safety Héctor M. Pesquera in response to the San Juan mayor’s estimate of 500 deaths. “If she is not willing to do such, it is an irresponsible comment. The government of Puerto Rico certifies the death count based on factual information in concert with all components involved in the process. At the moment, the official death count is 55.”
Mónica Menéndez, who serves as deputy director of the Bureau of Forensic Sciences, also dismissed the claim of a much higher death toll. “There’s no reason for us to be hiding numbers,” she said. “We work with what we’ve received and we’ve analyzed it. And my personnel work hard to do this. It hurts us to hear people think we might be playing around with the numbers.”
Puerto Rico has a long way to go to fully recover, and the U.S. government has been widely criticized by legislators and the Puerto Rican community. The Trump administration asked Congress to approve a $44 billion aid package for the island last week, far short of the $94 billion requested by Puerto Rican officials.