FEMA official: Puerto Rico knows more about hurricane deaths than it has told the public

Puerto Rico appears to know more than it has let on about who died because of Hurricane Maria, a Federal Eme...

Posted: Sep 12, 2018 1:17 AM
Updated: Sep 12, 2018 1:17 AM

Puerto Rico appears to know more than it has let on about who died because of Hurricane Maria, a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) official told CNN.

Publicly, Puerto Rican officials have given details on only 64 individuals who died in the hurricane and its aftermath. Yet a FEMA official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told CNN that Puerto Rican authorities worked with the agency to co-investigate and confirm nearly four times that many hurricane-related deaths -- 247.

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Families of the 247 people whose deaths FEMA confirmed to be storm-related as of September 5 received a total of $565,882 in assistance from FEMA to cover some funeral and burial expenses, according to Dasha Castillo, a FEMA spokeswoman. As of that date, 3,005 people had applied for that assistance in relation to deaths that happened after Maria or Hurricane Irma, Castillo said.

Of those, more than 2,350 cases are "currently in various phases of review and processing," she said. And 420 applications have been rejected, she said. Most of those -- 369 -- were dismissed because the agency was unable to contact the person who filed the application despite multiple attempts, according to FEMA. Only 11 of those rejected claims were found to be unrelated to Hurricane Maria, Castillo said.

The figures, which were previously unreleased, raise new questions about the speed at which federal and territorial government officials are investigating and paying claims related to people who died in Hurricanes Maria and Irma; they also highlight an apparent disconnect between what Puerto Rico officials have been saying publicly about the storm deaths and what they may have known in private.

Pedro Cerame, spokesman for Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló's administration in Washington, told CNN that FEMA uses somewhat different criteria to classify storm-related deaths.

"FEMA has its own guidelines and protocols for this," he said.

Their process is not linked to the government of Puerto Rico, he said.

Castillo, the FEMA spokeswoman, maintained that FEMA is in contact with Puerto Rico officials and is using information from the commonwealth's medical examiner's officer to make decisions. Furthermore, FEMA uses federal criteria from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to classify storm related deaths, she said. That's the same criteria Puerto Rico has said it uses.

"I'm not sure where they actually got that number," the unnamed FEMA official, who was not authorized to speak on the record, told CNN, referring to the 64 deaths reported publicly by Puerto Rico.

That list of 64 people has not been updated publicly for months.

Rosselló's government now admits an estimated 2,975 people died because of Hurricane Maria. But that's a statistical approximation of "excess deaths" produced by George Washington University and commissioned by Rosselló. Officials have released details only on 64 individuals who died because of the storm, which hit the US territory in the Caribbean one year ago this month.

The individual accounting -- not just the statistical estimation of deaths -- is important in part because FEMA pays funeral benefits only in cases in which a death is certified as being related to the disaster.

The review of storm-related deaths is a collaboration between Puerto Rico officials and those at the federal level, according to the unnamed FEMA official. "They're very heavily involved in all of these decisions" about whose deaths are tallied as storm-related, the FEMA worker said, referring to Puerto Rico officials.

The tally of Maria deaths has been the subject of controversy for months. CNN, the Centro de Periodismo Investigativo (CPI), The New York Times and others raised questions last year about the true toll of the storm. In an October 2017 press conference, President Donald Trump praised the island for having a relatively low death toll from the storm, then only 16. The figure jumped to 34 later that day.

It stood at 64 until August when George Washington University released its report.

For months, CNN has asked officials from Puerto Rico's Department of Public Safety to comment on specific deaths that the network found to be related to Maria based on federal guidelines from the CDC. Officials have refused to comment on most of the deaths CNN has investigated as storm-related, including those labeled in Puerto Rico's own mortality records -- which journalists from CNN and CPI sued to obtain -- as related to a "cataclysmic storm."

The inconsistency between the 247 deaths and the 64 reported by Puerto Rico officials does not make logical sense, said Ariadna Godreau Aubert, executive director of Ayuda Legal Puerto Rico, a group of attorneys that has been advocating on behalf of storm victims in Puerto Rico.

"There's nothing I can tell you to explain that lack of coherence" between the figures, she said. "It's the way they've been -- a lack of data and a lack of information throughout the entire recovery process."

It is "unfortunate" that it's taken so long for FEMA and Puerto Rico to review deaths and pay these benefits to the families of the deceased, said Gary Webb, a professor of emergency management and disaster science at the University of North Texas.

"For me, the main concern with this prolonged process is it's hindering the community recovery process -- the lack of closure," he said by phone. "[F]rom the perspective of those family members filling those claims it's almost an ongoing victimization -- or a re-victimization -- jumping through these bureaucratic hurdles."

FEMA said the investigations are complex and time-consuming.

"A lot of times when the individual applies we have to rely on the individual to get the information from the medical examiner's office -- and the death certificate," the FEMA official said. It all "takes time."

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