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San Juan mayor: Hurricane death toll could be 10 times higher than reported

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Men walk damaged trees after the passage of Hurricane Maria, in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on September 20, 2017. Maria slammed into Puerto Rico on, cutting power on most of the US territory as terrified residents hunkered down in the face of the island's worst storm in living memory. After leaving a deadly trail of destruction on a string of smaller Caribbean islands, Maria made landfall on Puerto Rico's southeast coast around daybreak, packing winds of around 150mph (240kph). (Photo credit: HECTOR RETAMAL/AFP/Getty Images)

PUERTO RICO —  San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz said Friday the death toll from hurricanes that hit Puerto Rico is actually hundreds higher than official government counts.

“It appears that for whatever reason the death toll is much higher than what has been reported,” Yulín Cruz said during an interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper on “The Lead.”

The official death toll stands at 55, according to a statement released to CNN by the government of Puerto Rico, but the number of dead may be almost as high as 500, Yulín Cruz said when asked specifically about the death count.

Many hurricane victims haven’t been included in that number due to their causes of death not being properly recorded or “being cataloged as dying of natural deaths,” Yulín Cruz said.

“When they were, for example, hooked to a respirator, there’s no power, the small generator that they had that gives up, and of course, they die of natural causes, but they are related to a lack of electricity,” she said.

According to a statement released October 28 by the government of Puerto Rico, 911 bodies cremated in the weeks after Hurricane Maria were the result of natural causes. But the average number of cremations in Puerto Rico in the same time frame is about half that, Yulín Cruz said.

In a statement to CNN, Department of Public Safety of Puerto Rico Héctor M. Pesquera slammed Cruz’s remarks.

“The Mayor of San Juan, Carmen Yulín Cruz, stated she ‘thinks’ that the actual death count from Hurricane María is closer to 500,” said Pesquera. “In order to support her statement she needs to present the evidence. If she is not willing to do such, it is an irresponsible comment. The Government of Puerto Rico certifies the death count based on factual information in concert with all components involved in the process.”

In a separate statement in October, Pesquera said the cremations were authorized at the request of family members of the deceased. The cremations followed a review of documents including death certificates and medical records showing the cause of death, he said.

The statement did not say whether bodies were examined prior to cremation, but noted that none of the 911 cremation authorizations raised suspicion “that would stop the requested process.”

As for Puerto Ricans who survived the storm, living conditions are still dire, Yulín Cruz said, noting that some people on the island are still without power weeks after the storms hit.