Communication Issues In Puerto Rico Make It Hard To Register Deaths

Oct 6, 2017
Originally published on October 6, 2017 8:24 pm
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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

In Puerto Rico today, officials revised the death toll from Hurricane Maria to 36. That is up from the previously reported 34. Even so, many say that number seems low considering the damage on the island. As NPR's Carrie Kahn reports, the death count is expected to rise as communication improves throughout Puerto Rico.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHOVELING)

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Workers in the small western town of Anasco are shoveling out mounds of mud that poured into the municipal cemetery after a nearby river overflowed during Hurricane Maria.

PEDRO GONZALEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "So much water rushed in here," says Pedro Gonzalez, who looks over the cemetery. "So much," he says.

Nearby horses drowned, huge trees overturned and power poles tumbled from the force of Maria's nearly 100 mile an hour winds. But once word of the flooding got to the capital San Juan some 100 miles away, officials were hearing of upended gravesites, caskets and bodies dumped everywhere.

GONZALEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: But Gonzalez tells a team of forensic officials who've traveled for more than three hours from the capital to check out the rumors that they aren't true. "We just had some headstones break in all of that mud," he says, "but no deaths." Deputy director of Puerto Rico's Forensic Institute, Monica Menendez, says rumors are flying.

MONICA MENENDEZ: This is our third mission that we've been out because of situations. And when we go it's not as bad as, like, they made it seem.

KAHN: The breakdown of communication around the island is making an accurate assessment of Maria's damage, including a complete death toll, difficult. Nearly 90 percent of the territory still doesn't have power, and cell service has only been restored to about 40 percent.

Carlos Malave opens the door to his funeral home, one of three in Anasco. He says he hasn't been able to communicate with forensic officials in San Juan. He had nine bodies come through here, and he says all were caused by the hurricane. The other two funeral homes in town, he says, had similar numbers. Most of the dead were bedridden and couldn't take the stress and the heat.

CARLOS MALAVE: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "In my opinion," says Malave, "there are more - many, many, more - bodies than they're saying." "Look," he adds. "In my small town of just 30,000 I know of almost 20 deaths. Imagine in the cities how many more there were." "Someone is trying to trick us with those low numbers," he adds.

On his visit earlier this week to Puerto Rico, President Trump claimed the damage wasn't as bad as other hurricanes, citing the low death toll. That upset local officials. Forensic director Monica Menendez says no number tricks are happening here.

MENENDEZ: We have to be like this.

KAHN: Back in her third-story office in San Juan, Menendez says she's being very meticulous about what is classified as a storm-related death and what is not.

MENENDEZ: We can't get false numbers. It's part of our responsibility to get everything and we're not - so executive director and I, we're going to make sure that what comes out of here is - it's certified and everything and it's true.

KAHN: Menendez says many doctors in the chaos after the hurricane simply put down natural causes on most death certificates. She's ordered her office to review all of those cases and is asking funeral homes to send her their certificates, too. That could mean hundreds of deaths in the past two week would need to be reviewed, a process she says shouldn't take too long even though nearly all cities and towns outside the capital still don't have power or Internet service. Governor Ricardo Rossello says Puerto Ricans will know how many people died due to Maria soon.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RICARDO ROSSELLO: They don't have any information recognizing what happened. And being able to give the people of Puerto Rico and quite frankly the people of the world what really happened over here, it's important to us.

KAHN: Rossello couldn't say, however, just how long it would be before that information was made public. Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Anasco, Puerto Rico.

(SOUNDBITE OF BRUNO BAVOTA'S "IF ONLY MY HEART WERE WIDE LIKE THE SEA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.