Puerto Rican Gov. Ricardo Rosselló said Thursday that there is an investigation ongoing into which deaths “meet the criteria for direct or indirect deaths” related to Hurricane Maria.
Rosselló, who earlier appeared on BuzzFeed News’ AM to DM, was later asked, “There appear to be at least dozens of deaths that match some of those same criteria that you mentioned on the show but haven't been counted in the death toll. Given that there were at least a couple of dozen deaths that we found, is that something that you plan to investigate?”
Rosselló responded, “Well, the investigation is ongoing.” When asked if that investigation was into hurricane-related deaths, he said, “into everything. Our process to evaluate which deaths met the criteria for direct or indirect deaths.”
Rosselló’s answer was ultimately unclear, and BuzzFeed News asked his spokesperson for clarification.
A spokesperson for the Institute of Forensic Sciences, which certifies if a death was hurricane-related, told BuzzFeed News earlier this month the institute was making decisions on a “case-by-case” basis.
“Okay, that is not the case,” Rosselló said Thursday. “There is a clear criteria,” he said, adding that officials have “been working on that and has been meeting with the hospitals, the crematoriums, forensic centers, and they have already distributed the protocol.”
It is unclear which criteria he is referring to. Funeral home and crematorium directors previously told BuzzFeed News, as of mid-October, that they are unclear on how to classify hurricane-related deaths and whether they should send bodies to the institute. (A spokesperson for the institute confirmed at the time that they had not officially communicated with funeral home and crematorium directors about hurricane-related deaths.)
Rosselló was earlier asked on AM to DM about 911 cremations after the hurricane that the government said were deaths by natural causes. Family members, as well as funeral home and crematorium directors, said they believed some of those deaths were related to the hurricane — such as people lacking oxygen or having heart attacks. (Similar deaths have been counted in the official death toll, currently at 51.)
Rosselló stood by that statement, saying, “The official death count takes into account people that died, directly, because of the storm, or indirectly, so, it is important to state that we are going beyond what is asked for.”
“For example,” he said, “there were a few folks that committed suicide, and based on the interviews with the family members they connected it to the storm and we are counting those.
“However, this story is really connecting the normal death toll that occurs in Puerto Rico," he said. "Last year we had 27,000 people that died, so that takes you at about over 2,000 a month.”
“So this month, after the storm, people died, as they were dying before the storm and as they will continue on dying and the cremation was because the family members asked for it,” he said. “We are not hiding anything.”
Meanwhile, Rosselló said, "We want equal treatment as US citizens" when it comes to hurricane recovery efforts.
Rosselló's comments came during an interview with AM to DM. He said the Army Corps of Engineers efforts were lacking when it came to restoring electricity to people.
"They have said and stipulated that we were going to get this up quickly and be there immediately and it's 35 days after signing the contract and still their brigades are not in Puerto Rico," he said.
Nidhi Prakash is a reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York
Contact Nidhi Prakash at email@example.com.
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