Puerto Rico’s government admitted on Friday that 911 people have died following Hurricane Maria, but insisted that they died of “natural causes” unrelated to the hurricane despite none of the bodies having been examined by a medical examiner prior to being cremated.
Karixia Ortiz Serrano, a spokesperson for the Department of Public Safety, told BuzzFeed that the classifications of death by “natural causes” were made by reviewing records and not inspection by medical examiners.
Ortiz Serrano also told Buzzfeed that the Puerto Rican government has no official guidelines on what qualifies as a hurricane-related death.
The official Hurricane Maria death toll currently stands at 51.
The government’s revelation comes after BuzzFeed News reported earlier Friday that directors of funeral homes and crematoriums in two municipalities were permitted by the government to burn the bodies of many people the directors thought died as a result of the hurricane — without a government pathologist examining the corpses first to determine if they should be counted in the official death toll.
The ramifications of an inaccurate cause of death could cheat families out of receiving FEMA relief funds, according to the report.
“These reports are extremely troubling — they provide even more reason to be concerned about the accuracy of the information we’re receiving,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a Democrat from Massachusetts, told BuzzFeed News. “The Trump Administration needs to cooperate with Puerto Rican authorities and provide all the necessary resources to ensure the death toll is accurately counted.”
Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rosselló has said that the island’s Institute of Forensic Sciences must examine and certify any hurricane-related deaths before they can be included in the death toll.
But the institute does not routinely — as in, in non-disaster situations — examine cases that were “natural deaths,” and that process has not changed to account for potential hurricane victims, Ortiz told BuzzFeed News this week, adding, “the process has not changed because of the emergency.”
Last week, top Democrats called on the Department of Homeland Security to provide accurate death counts following Hurricane Maria.
“We urge you to provide all necessary resources to confirm that storm-related deaths are being counted correctly,” the senators wrote in the letter to acting Homeland Security Secretary Elaine Duke.
In his visit to the U.S. territory earlier this month, President Trump compared the “death counts” between Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Maria.
“If you looked — every death is a horror, but if you look at a real catastrophe like Katrina, and you look at the tremendous hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of people that died, and you look at what happened here with really a storm that was just totally overbearing, nobody has seen anything like this,” Trump said. “What is your death count as of this morning, 17?”
“Sixteen people certified,” Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló responded.
“Sixteen people certified versus in the thousands,” Trump said. “You can be very proud of all of your people, all of our people working together. Sixteen versus literally thousands of people. You can be very proud.”