Puerto Rico Is Burning Its Dead, And We May Never Know How Many People The Hurricane Really Killed
People whose bodies are cremated are largely not being counted in the official death toll.
28 October, 2017
AGUADILLA, Puerto Rico — Funeral directors and crematoriums are being permitted by the Puerto Rican government to burn the bodies of people who died as a result of Hurricane Maria — without those people being counted in the official death toll.
The result is a massive loophole likely suppressing the official death count, which has become a major indicator of how the federal government’s relief efforts are going because President Trump himself made it one.
During Trump’s photo-op visit to the US territory — whose residents are US citizens — three weeks ago, he boasted that the death toll was just 16. It doubled by the time he returned to Washington that same day. The death toll is now at 51, a figure widely contradicted by what funeral homes, crematoriums, and hospitals on the ground tell BuzzFeed News.
Then, last week, when asked how he would rate the White House’s response to the crisis, Trump said, "I’d say it was a 10.” More than a month after the storm made landfall on Sept. 20, 2.6 million people are without power, at least 875,000 people don’t have access to running water, and 66% of the island still doesn’t have cell service.
Trump added, “I’d say it was probably the most difficult when you talk about relief, when you talk about search, when you talk about all of the different levels, and even when you talk about lives saved.” Meanwhile, two US representatives and 13 senators recently wrote letters to the acting head of homeland security requesting investigations into the death toll.
Last week, BuzzFeed News visited 10 funeral homes and crematoriums in two Puerto Rican municipalities on the territory’s western coast, Aguadilla and Mayagüez, at least two hours away from the bustling San Juan. The findings include:
Communication between the central institute certifying official hurricane deaths, called the Institute of Forensic Sciences, and funeral homes or crematoriums appears to be fully broken, with each side waiting for the other to take action.
The central institute is also giving crematoriums permission to burn bodies of potential hurricane victims — which is happening more because it is cheaper and logistically easier as families rebuild their lives — without examining them first, which means they are not being counted in the official death toll.
Disaster experts say this lack of a transparent and consistent approach to counting deaths means the toll is likely inaccurate.
And experts also say an inaccurate official death toll potentially cheats families out of FEMA relief funds and could hurt how future disasters are handled.
The funeral home and crematorium directors told BuzzFeed News that they had received dozens of bodies of people who died of hurricane-related causes — just the cases from these two municipalities would potentially more than double the death toll if they were included. The Forensic Institute permitted the bodies of at least 42 potential hurricane victims to be burned, according to one crematorium director.
Puerto Rico’s safety department says the funeral and crematorium directors should send any potential hurricane-related victims to the institute before they’re burned — but admit they haven’t actually officially communicated that to them.
John Mutter, a professor of earth sciences and public affairs at Columbia University who studied how the death count was handled after Hurricane Katrina, said Puerto Rico’s procedures seem to be “deliberately trying to keep the numbers low,” which he called “unconscionable.” Other experts called it a failure of bureaucracy.
The White House and the office of the Governor of Puerto Rico, Ricardo Rosselló, didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Asked directly if the number of hurricane-related deaths in Puerto Rico is being undercounted, a spokesperson for the Puerto Rico Department of Public Safety dodged, saying, “We can’t infer or reach any assumptions or inferences. If there really are cases like this, they have to present them to the authorities.”
But, at this point, many of those bodies have been burned to ash.
“I never expected all of this”
A confusing process
“That is a failure of government”
Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello said three weeks ago that he had conducted a survey of the island’s hospitals and medical centers to update the death toll. The Department of Public Safety, when asked about the survey, said they will do them “periodically” but couldn’t say when. They said the government is in contact with hospitals but that there are communication difficulties that make it hard to do another survey.