Puerto Rico’s Hurricane Maria deaths: judge orders release of death certificates

A superior court judge in San Juan ordered the government of Puerto Rico on Tuesday to release detailed data on every single death recorded on the island since Hurricane Maria made landfall in late September.

The data could provide much-needed insight into the true death toll from Hurricane Maria, which has been a source of controversy ever since President Trump visited the island and declared the low death count a victory. The official death toll is 64, despite growing evidence that the number of people who died in the storm’s aftermath is in the thousands.

A recent Harvard study published in the New England Journal of Medicine estimated that upward of 4,645 people died as a result of Hurricane Maria, mainly from the lack of electricity and medical care after the storm. Then on Friday, Puerto Rico’s Health Department said 1,397 overall deaths were reported from September to December in 2017 that might be linked to the storm, according to the Associated Press.

The new court order may help further illuminate this metric of the storm’s deadly impact, which remains uncertain. Puerto Rico’s vital records bureau has seven days to hand over copies of all death certificates, cremation authorization records, and other mortality data to Puerto Rico’s Center for Investigative Reporting and CNN, which have been locked in a legal battle for the information for months.

In February, CIP and CNN filed two separate lawsuits against the government of Puerto Rico and the health department’s vital records bureau, known as the Registro Demográfico, for refusing to hand over copies of all death certificates, cremation authorizations, and access to the database where each cause of death is recorded. The ruling means that the health department would likely need to give the records to other journalists and academics who may have requested it too.

At the time the lawsuits were filed, the government said it wouldn’t release the data, citing personal privacy issues and saying that withholding the data was a matter of public interest. (Puerto Rico doesn’t have laws on public access to government records, so the local courts generally follow the federal courts’ interpretation of the Freedom of Information Act.)

On Tuesday, Superior Court Judge Lauracelis Roques Arroyo ruled in favor of the journalists, saying that death certificates are public records and that the government could only redact social security numbers to protect individual privacy. She also argued that establishing the true death toll is a matter of high public interest.

“Few issues have more news value or public importance than getting more information about the people who died in Puerto Rico after a catastrophic event like Hurricane Maria, particularly in the context of the controversy surrounding the number of certified deaths the government has linked to the storm, and to point out deficiencies in the government’s hurricane preparation and response,” Roques Arroyo wrote in her ruling.

She added: “The truth will contribute to and ease the process of recovering from the great pain that Hurricane Maria caused to thousands of Puerto Rican families.”

Vox and other media outlets have published multiple reports challenging the official death toll, finding evidence of hurricane deaths that were not included in the official death count. These investigations prompted members of Congress to request an audit of the hurricane deaths and led social science researchers to take a closer look at the data.

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