Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló on Monday ordered a review of all deaths since Hurricane Maria ravaged the island, after months of dismissing reports that hundreds of victims may not have been included in the official death toll.
As previously reported by BuzzFeed News and subsequently other news organizations, the hurricane-related deaths appeared to be largely uncounted. The official death toll currently stands at 64 people.
Despite the average death rate in Puerto Rico increasing sharply during and after the hurricane, officials refused to connect it to the storm and defended their methodology for counting the number of storm-related deaths.
However, last month, Rosselló suggested to BuzzFeed News’ AM to DM that there was an ongoing investigation into which deaths "meet the criteria for direct or indirect deaths” related to Hurricane Maria.
On Monday, Rosselló finally acknowledged that the death toll "may be higher than the official count certified to date."
In a statement provided to BuzzFeed News and first reported by the New York Times, Rosselló said he had ordered the Puerto Rico Demographic Registry and the Department of Public Safety to "conduct a thorough review and inspection of all deaths that have taken place since Hurricane Maria hit, regardless of what the death certificate says."
The governor said he "welcomed" the recent news reports on the number of hurricane-related deaths, but added that the government "needs to investigate if the increase of the deaths is related directly or indirectly with Hurricane Maria."
"This is about more than numbers, these are lives: real people, leaving behind loved ones and families," Rosselló said in the statement.
It's unclear if authorities plan to exhume dead bodies as part of the investigation — if they do, one complication will be the number of cremations conducted after the hurricane.
The controversy over the death toll was, in part, sparked by President Trump's photo-op visit to the US territory in October, during which he bragged about the death toll being 16, a figure that doubled by the time he returned to Washington on the same day.
The official death toll was widely contradicted by what funeral homes, crematoriums, and hospitals on the island told BuzzFeed News in October. The government soon admitted that 911 people died of "natural causes" after the hurricane, but their bodies were never physically examined to determine if they should be included in the official death toll.
A CNN survey of 112 Puerto Rican funeral homes in November found that there were at least 499 storm-related deaths reported between Sept. 20 to Oct. 19. On Dec. 8, a New York Times review of the island's daily mortality rate found that 1,052 more people than usual had died in Puerto Rico in the 42 days after the hurricane struck. Puerto Rico's Center for Investigative Journalism also reported that at least 985 more people died in the 40 days after the hurricane, when compared to the same time period in 2016.
However, Rosselló said that the government could not base any official hurricane-related fatality count on "statistical analysis" and "hearsay."
"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.
He also appeared to address the criticism directed at his government for undercounting the number of deaths, saying, "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."