PUERTO RICO – The number of people who died in Puerto Rico because of Hurricane Maria has risen to 64, the island’s Department of Public Safety said Saturday.
The government added two more storm-related deaths to the official total. However, investigations by CNN and other news organizations show the overall number may be much higher.
“These deaths that are certified today as indirect deaths related to Hurricane Maria are the result of investigations into cases that have been brought to our consideration,” DPS Secretary Hector M. Pesquera said in a news release.
One of the cases certified Saturday by the DPS and confirmed by the department’s spokeswoman was Jose “Pepe” Sanchez.
Sanchez was highlighted in a CNN investigative piece that checked the accuracy of the official death toll.
When Sanchez collapsed during the storm, emergency medical personnel could not make it to the house. Doctors classified his death as natural and the government did not include it in the storm death toll at first.
CNN reached out to Sanchez’s wife Edith, who is still without power. Speaking on the news of her husband’s death being included in the official death toll, Edith Perez said, “At least now, I feel a sense of justice.”
The government had not yet reached out to Edith Perez when CNN made contact with her Saturday.
The other person had health problems and the death certificate said the death was natural, the DPS said. The death of that person, who was not named, was “indirectly related to the hurricane,” the DPS said.
On December 2, the DPS reported four other deaths indirectly caused by the storm — a case of exposure to carbon monoxide, a suicide, a person run over by his own vehicle and a death from complications following a fall. Those four deaths brought the official tally at that point to 62.
Counting the dead
Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico on September 20 as a Category 4 hurricane. The energy grid was heavily damaged, causing an island-wide power outage. Damages are estimated at $45 billion-$95 billion.
The death toll quickly came into dispute.
Puerto Rican officials say they base their death count on information they receive, but apparently many “indirect” deaths, such as Sanchez’s, were not counted.
In November, CNN called 279 funeral homes and reached nearly half of them. Of those that CNN spoke with, funeral directors reported 499 deaths they believe were related to hurricane Maria.
San Juan Mayor Carmen Yuln Cruz told CNN on November 3 that she thought the toll could be 500.
Many hurricane victims were not included in the official count because the cause of death was improperly recorded or they were “cataloged as dying of natural deaths,” Yuln Cruz said.
Two demographers who conducted a statistical assessment of reported deaths said the actual death toll may be more than eight times higher than the official number from the Puerto Rican government. Pesquera said the government has been looking into other cases.
Information released Saturday by Puerto Rico’s vital statistics bureau shows the number of deaths may be even higher.
$1 billion in assistance
In a news release, FEMA said federal assistance to survivors, city governments and Puerto Rico as a result of Hurricanes Irma and Maria has topped $1 billion.
More than 1 million Puerto Rican residents registered for FEMA assistance and FEMA has provided funds to more than 366,000 families in Puerto Rico, the agency said.
FEMA said the assistance includes:
More than $259 million in financial assistance for rental, repair or rebuilding of residences.
More than $251 million to repair or replace damaged personal property or to pay for disaster-related necessary expenses.
More than $39 million in low-interest disaster loans for more than 880 survivors and 50 business owners through the US Small Business Administration.
Updates on services
The Puerto Rican government webpage on hurricane recovery said Saturday that 56.6% of the island’s pre-hurricane electricity-generating capacity had been restored.
However, that figure does not reflect the number or percentage of Puerto Rico’s population that has power.
The webpage said 84.3% of gas stations were operating and 88.8% of supermarkets were operating.