Death tolls are often a key resource for gauging and understanding a disaster's impact, making the accuracy of such numbers incredibly vital. Often, both officials and the public depend on death tolls to determine the severity or life-threatening nature of a tragedy. And in some cases, death toll numbers may impact the amount of aid provided following a disaster. But is the death toll in Puerto Rico being underreported following Hurricane Maria? Some media outlets and congressional lawmakers fear the government is downplaying the numbers.
While the death toll in Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria had stalled at 16 for weeks, Secretary of Public Security Hector Pesquera announced Saturday it had since risen to 48. However, according to a separate analysis conducted by Vox, the death toll in Puerto Rico is likely much, much higher than officials are letting on.
In analyzing English and Spanish news coming out of Puerto Rico since Hurricane Maria devastated the unincorporated U.S. territory on Sept. 20, Vox found that more than 530 deaths were reported, 81 of which were found to be either a direct or indirect result of the hurricane and confirmed by either the government or by local public officials or funeral directors. In the other 450 deaths uncovered the cause of death was reportedly unknown. According to Vox reporter Eliza Barclay, President Donald Trump and his administration have emphasized the relatively low death toll reported in Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria as a means of attempting to minimize the severity of the situation.
Additionally Vox also found reports of at least 69 people missing in the wake of the deadly storm. Moreover, CNN has reported that a spokeswoman for Puerto Rico's Department of Public Safety confirmed Thursday that at least 113 people were still unaccounted for.
Concerned about the potential inaccuracy of Puerto Rico's death toll, congressional lawmakers Reps. Nydia Velázquez and Bennie Thompson have asked the Department of Homeland Security to review the numbers as well as the methodology behind them.
"We are writing with profound concern that Puerto Rico's official death toll is being woefully underreported," the pair's letter to Acting Department of Homeland Security Secretary Elaine C. Duke begins. "Despite statements form the Administration praising the response efforts by Federal officials, accounts from individuals on the ground and media reports suggest casualty counts are much higher than being officially reported and are therefore distorting the grim realities facing the Island."
In their letter to the Department of Homeland Security, Reps. Velázquez and Thompson charged that "federal and local agencies need complete transparency from all entities working on this unraveling humanitarian crisis." They go on to say that "it would be morally reprehensible to intentionally underreport the true death toll to portray relief efforts as more successful than they are" before urging the agency to carefully examine all casualty estimates for accuracy.
"Having just been in Puerto Rico last weekend, it is clear that the real story of what is happening is not being told by this Administration," Rep. Thompson said in a statement issued by his office Thursday.
"The American people deserve to know what's happening to their fellow U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico," Velázquez said in a statement of her own. "Given recent reports suggesting that the death toll is much higher than is being officially acknowledged, we need a swift and thorough investigation to ensure the real magnitude of this crisis is made public."
Neither Thompson or Velázquez immediately responded to Bustle's request for a comment.
Trump has faced heavy criticism for his response to Puerto Rico in the weeks following Maria's landfall as a nearly Category 5 hurricane. Recently, he appeared to imply he might soon withdraw federal aid to Puerto Rico, tweeting, "we cannot keep FEMA, the military & the first responders, who have been amazing (under the most difficult circumstances) in [Puerto Rico] forever." In another controversial moment a few weeks earlier, Trump accused Puerto Ricans of wanting "everything to be done for them."
Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico on Sept. 20 leaving widespread and catastrophic devastation in her wake. Although it has been more than three weeks since the storm, roughly 85 percent of the island is still without power, according to government officials.