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Puerto Rico governor announces task force to examine hurricane-related deaths

by Sandra Lilley /
Image: Puerto Rico Hurricane Recovery
People walk on a damaged pier caused by the passing of Hurricane Maria in the Punta Santiago beachfront neighborhood in Humacao on Dec. 8, 2017.Ricardo Arduengo / NBC News

Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rosselló on Thursday announced the formation of a task force to examine the number of deaths related to Hurricane María. The group is expected to report its findings, including any revised numbers, in 90 days.

Saying it was important to "guarantee transparency" as part of the island's recovery process, the executive order tasks Public Safety Secretary Héctor Pesquera with creating and coordinating a process, in conjunction with health, forensic and demographic registries, to review deaths following Hurricane María and whether they are related to the devastating storm.

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Pesquera, who will coordinate the task force, had been highly critical in the past of claims that the death toll was in the hundreds. He called San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz "irresponsible" in November when she said that the number could be closer to 500.

However, in early December, when he announced that the official death count was over 60, Pesquera said that the process of evaluating hurricane-related deaths is ongoing.

The issue of the death count has been a topic of concern; though the official number of deaths related to Hurricane Maria is 64, recent estimates by Puerto Rico's Center for Investigative Journalism and The New York Times suggest the real number may be more than 1,000.

The creation of the group follows statements made by Rosselló on Dec. 18 ordering a review of deaths following the storm.

"We always expected that the number of hurricane-related deaths would increase as we received more factual information — not hearsay — and this review will ensure we are correctly counting everybody," he said.

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