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Puerto Rico's governor admits there's a big problem with the hurricane death count

Gov. Ricardo Rosselló can’t ignore the mounting evidence of uncounted deaths anymore.

An improvised emergency room in Vieques, Puerto Rico, on November 27, 2017.
Ricardo Arduengo/AFP via Getty Images

The governor of Puerto Rico has ordered a recount of deaths related to Hurricane Maria nearly three months after the storm devastated the island, as first reported by the New York Times.

Ricardo Rosselló announced the review on Monday in light of growing evidence that the official figure of 64 deaths is a gross misrepresentation of the actual death toll.

Multiple media outlets, including Vox, have reported that the real number is likely closer to 1,000. Earlier this month, social science researchers published an analysis of mortality data from the Puerto Rico Vital Statistics System to compare the historical death averages for September and October to deaths this year. They found that the number of people who died from the storm is closer to 1,085. A New York Times analysis of similar data found that the death toll could be at least 1,052.

"I welcomed recent news analysis on the number of hurricane-related deaths, and that they may be higher than the official count certified to date," Rosselló said in a statement. "Those reports used the data provided by the Puerto Rico Demographic Registry, but the Government needs to investigative if the increase of the deaths is related directly or indirectly with Hurricane Maria."

Staff from Puerto Rico's Public Safety Department and Demographic Registry will investigate each death recorded in the hurricane's aftermath, regardless of the official cause of death listed on the death certificate, Rosselló said. He did not give details about how the investigation will work or how long it will take.

The governor's announcement is an abrupt shift on the issue. Puerto Rican officials, including the governor, have repeatedly defended their conservative death count in press conferences with reporters.

That led several Democratic members of Congress to push for a federal review of the government's methodology.

On December 13, Rep. Nydia Velázquez (D-NY) and Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-MS) sent a letter to the Government Accountability Office citing analyses by Vox, The New York Times, and other media outlets that found the actual death toll may be at least 1,000. They’re asking the GAO to audit and evaluate the Puerto Rican government’s methodology in calculating the death toll.

“Donald Trump came to Puerto Rico and shamefully bragged that the death toll was something to be proud of,” Velázquez said in a statement. “In the meantime, every credible statistical analysis suggests that the actual loss of life is staggeringly higher than the official numbers. We need an impartial analysis of how many people have died and are dying from Maria in Puerto Rico so the public fully grasps the magnitude of this humanitarian crisis and our government responds appropriately.”

If the government’s death toll has indeed been as inaccurate as these analyses suggest it is, there are immediate, serious consequences for the people of Puerto Rico, the lawmakers said.

“In coming weeks, as Congress considers additional aid for hurricane-impacted areas, including Puerto Rico, the official death count will likely shape the scope and direction of federal assistance,” Velázquez and Thompson wrote in the letter.

On Monday, Velázquez praised Rosselló's decision to review the death toll, but said she still thinks an independent review is necessary.

"I will continue asking GAO to examine this issue," she said in the statement.

Rosselló did not give any details about how the recount will take place, though it would likely involve interviewing doctors and relatives of each person who died, to see if some hurricane-related circumstance — like a power outage — could have contributed to their death.

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