Puerto Rico's governor on Monday ordered authorities to review all deaths reported since Hurricane Maria hit nearly three months ago amid accusations that the U.S. territory has vastly undercounted storm-related deaths.
Gov. Ricardo Rossello said in a statement that it's possible the toll is higher than the 64 deaths currently blamed on the Category 4 hurricane that hit on Sept. 20 with winds of up to 154 mph (248 kph), causing up to an estimated $95 billion in damage.
"We always expected that the number of hurricane-related deaths would increase as we received more factual information — not hearsay— and this review will ensure we are correctly counting everybody," he said. "We also want the most accurate count and understanding of how people lost their lives to fully account for the impact of these storms, and to identify ways in which we can prevent fatalities in advance of future disasters."
Previously, Rossello's administration had repeatedly defended the official count of hurricane-related deaths even though demographers said a spike in the average number of deaths after the hurricane was not normal.
While the current death toll includes some who died of heart attacks, suicide and respiratory failure, critics say it fails to account for all of those for which the storm and the hardships it caused were contributing factors. One report by researchers, including the director of applied demography at Pennsylvania State University, estimates that there were nearly 500 excess deaths in Puerto Rico in September.
Relatives of victims note that the storm left the entire island of 3.4 million people without power, including hospitals and nursing homes caring for people on respirators or other electric equipment.
Officials have said the average number of daily deaths increased from 82 to 117 after the storm, with a total of 2,838 deaths reported in September, a 20 percent increase from the 2,366 deaths reported for the same month in 2016 and up from 2,242 in September 2015.
Rossello said the government has to investigate whether the increase in deaths is directly or indirectly tied to Hurricane Maria.
"Every life is more than a number, and every death must have a name and vital information attached to it, as well as an accurate accounting of the facts related to their passing," he said.
Officials with the government's forensic institute have said many recent death certificates they received did not state whether lack of power could have been a factor.
Rep. Nydia Velazquez, a Democrat from New York, praised Rossello for his action but said an independent review is still needed.
"The official death count on the island seems unrealistically low," she said in a statement. "The American people and their elected officials need the full picture of the damage wrought by Maria to ensure the federal government responds adequately in assisting our fellow citizens living on the island."