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A Judge Ordered Puerto Rico To Release Hurricane Death Toll Information

The order comes just days after the government released a new report showing a steep increase in the number of fatalities shortly after Hurricane Maria.

Posted on June 5, 2018, at 1:41 p.m. ET

Ricardo Arduengo / AFP / Getty Images

View of a Puerto Rican flag placed on a pair of shoes among hundreds displayed in memory of those killed by Hurricane Maria.

A judge in Puerto Rico has ordered the government to release death certificates for those who died during and after Hurricane Maria.

The court order was issued this week after Puerto Rico's Center for Investigative Journalism (CPI PR) and CNN sued Gov. Ricardo Rosselló's health department for withholding the information. And it comes just days after the government released a new report showing a steep increase in the number of fatalities shortly after the hurricane.

"This court orders that access to death certificates be allowed, because the balance tilts in favor of the constitutional right of access to information," Judge Lauracelis Roques Arroyo wrote in her decision, adding that the government's argument that releasing the information would violate privacy standards is not valid.

The Puerto Rican Demographic Registry, part of the Department of Health, will be compelled to provide information within seven days to CPI PR and CNN, which filed a separate lawsuit for similar information. The two petitions were consolidated into one case in March.

Gerald Herbert / AP

Jose Trinidad walks near the debris of his destroyed home in Montebello, Puerto Rico, in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, Sept. 26, 2017.

As a result of the court order, CPI PR should be given death certificates, burial and cremation approvals, and all death statistics for people who died from Sept. 18, 2017, to the most recent entries in the registry as of June 4.

CNN should be given death certificates from Sept. 20, 2017, to Jan. 20, 2017.

"The data of the people killed after Hurricane Maria had become the best kept secret of the administration of Ricardo Rosselló, who only gave minimal and general information, sometimes wrong, and has instead been using public resources to prevent journalists and academics from seeing databases and death certificates," Carla Minet, executive director of CPI PR, said in a statement. "That public policy contradicts [the government's] public relations strategy which proclaims transparency."

The administration denied there was a problem with their official death toll for months after initial reports from CPI PR and BuzzFeed News offered evidence that people who died as a result of the hurricane were not being counted.

In response to the ruling, Puerto Rico's secretary of public affairs and public policy, Ramón Rosario, said the government will comply with the judge's order, while defending its refusal to make the information publicly available.

"The government of Puerto Rico complied with what is expressly provided for in the Puerto Rico Demographic Registry Act," Rosario said. "However, a court already determined that both the CPI and CNN are interested parties. The Puerto Rico Demographic Registry Act is clear in that an order of the court can convert a party into an interested party beyond the requirements established by the law, which is what happened in this case."

"Our policy, at the request of Governor Ricardo Rosselló, is to work with strict transparency and facilitate access to all public information, so we will be complying with what was recently ordered by the Court," the statement added.

In her decision, Roques quoted from an executive order Rosselló signed in January setting up an internal working group lead by Héctor Pesquera, who has been in charge of the death count since the hurricane hit, to revise the death toll.

"By providing this information, '[the] government will take all measures that [they] understand necessary to seek the highest level of transparency both in the recovery of our Island, and in the damage to the lives of our citizens caused by this atmospheric phenomenon,'" Roques wrote.

Ramon Espinosa / AP

On Sept. 29, 2017, police lift the coffin containing the remains of fellow officer Luis Angel Gonzalez, who died when he tried to navigate a river crossing in his car during Hurricane Maria.

Last week, a Harvard study estimated that 5,740 people died as a result of Hurricane Maria. Responding to that report, Rosselló said his administration was being transparent about the death count numbers.

After the study, Rosselló defended his administration's handling of the death toll, telling CNN's Anderson Cooper Thursday night that the data was already accessible, citing a GWU death toll study commissioned by the government, which has yet to produce a report.

"I signed an executive order whereby this data is being accessible. We’ve opened the books," he said, adding, "I will look into it and if it’s true, there will be hell to pay" if his administration was refusing to make data publicly available.

The following morning, on Friday, the island's Statistics Institute sued the Rosselló administration for denying them access to the data. That lawsuit is still pending.

A BuzzFeed News investigation, in partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, based on thousands of documents the government didn't want you to see.