By DANICA COTO
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) — A court on Tuesday ordered the U.S. territory’s government to release all death certificates issued after Hurricane Maria hit the island amid allegations that the official death toll of 64 is severely undercounted.
The court also said the government has to turn over other information, including copies of all burial and cremation permits issued after the Category 4 storm and allow access to the demographic registrar’s database that details causes of death.
“The information … is public by nature,” wrote Judge Lauracelis Roques. “People still don’t have a clear picture as to how many lives were lost due to a lack of food, medicine, health services or simply because of an ineffective response to an emergency. That’s why it’s urgent to shed light on all components of government preparedness and response.”
The government has seven days to comply with the ruling, which responds to a lawsuit filed by CNN and Puerto Rico’s Center for Investigative Journalism. It is unclear whether the government will appeal the decision. A spokeswoman for Gov. Ricardo Rossello did not immediately return a message for comment.
Rossello and other government officials have withheld certain information, saying it was confidential.
“They’re wrong,” the judge wrote. “Allowing the truth to be known would contribute to and smooth a path toward a process of recovery from the great pain that Hurricane Maria caused to thousands of Puerto Rican families.”
The ruling comes just days after Puerto Rico’s Institute of Statistics filed a lawsuit against the island’s health department and demographic registry seeking more data on the number of deaths reported after Maria. Hours after that lawsuit was filed, the health department said that an additional 1,397 overall deaths were reported from September to December in 2017, compared with the same period the previous year. However, officials did not provide causes of death for any of the 11,459 total people deceased during the period.
A Harvard study published last week estimates that there were up to 4,600 more deaths than usual in the three months after Maria, although some independent experts questioned the methods and the number in that study. Previous studies have found that the number of direct and indirect hurricane-related deaths is higher than the official toll, including a 2017 report that said there were nearly 500 more deaths than usual on the island in September.
A team of experts at George Washington University is leading an independent review to determine the number of deaths caused by Maria. A preliminary report was due in May, but the team was granted more time.