Puerto Rico says there were 1,427 more deaths “than normal” in the wake of hurricanes

National

(CBS News)- Puerto Rico said in a report to Congress on Thursday that there were 1,427 more deaths “than normal” in the wake of Hurricane Maria and Hurricane Irma, which churned on a path just north of the island two weeks before Maria hit last September.

The report said, however, that the 1,427 deaths in the four months after the storms “may or may not be attributable to the hurricanes.” It said the figure topping 1,400 was based on data from the four years before 2017, when the two hurricanes hit the island.

The report, which outlines a massive recovery plan for the island, noted that an initial official estimate said 64 lives were lost, and said that the official number is being reviewed as part of a George Washington University study, which was commissioned by Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló.

The death toll from Hurricane Maria has long been scrutinized and debated. Earlier this month, an analysis put the figure at 1,139. Earlier this year, another study said the hurricane was likely responsible for more than 4,600 deaths — a figure that was based on results of a door-to-door survey of 3,299 randomly selected homes across the island. 

Most deaths took place not during Hurricane Maria, but after it, when emergency services were stretched and power outages and road blockages made it hard to get around the island. 

CBSN Originals team was in Puerto Rico this week. They visited a morgue that has a backlog of roughly 300 unidentified bodies waiting to undergo autopsy. 

The facility has been backlogged for years, but the issue was exacerbated by Hurricane Maria, the team reported.

CBS News’ David Begnaud said that five 18-wheeler units housing unidentified bodies sit in the back of the facility, and that one trailer has housed people for at least up to three years. He said that the CBSN Originals team was invited to visit the site at the request of the governor’s press secretary following news reports on the island about a foul odor coming from the back of the facility.

“We were taken to one of the trailers. The door was open. And the smell was pungent,” Begnaud said. “That you would expect … because there are bodies inside. But the bottom line: when we were there, we did not smell a foul odor.”

A forthcoming document from Puerto Rico’s Department of Health, however, is expected to make mention of an odor coming from the facility, according to Begnaud. 

Reports on the issue appear to have prompted Puerto Rican officials to take action. They recently reached out to FEMA requesting money and personnel. 

On Tuesday, 13 mortuary officers who can help receive and transfer bodies arrived on the island, and on Thursday, radiologists, pathologists and dentists were being brought in. 

Begnaud reports that the backlog is just one of many issues on the island. While things have improved nearly a year after Maria hit, the problems in Puerto Rico are so systemic and have been around for so long that even improvements that are being made are only pecking away at the surface, he said.

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