At the funeral of Isabel Rivera, Evelyn Cruz Rivera, one of Isabel Rivera's five children, stands at her mother's coffin. On 15 October 2017, three weeks after Hurricane MAria hit Puerto Rico, Isabel Rivera died awaiting a procedure at a hospital that had lost power in the hurricane and whose backup generator failed. Photo: CNN

By John D. Sutter
27 October 2017

Arecibo, Puerto Rico (CNN) – You won't hear about her death from officials investigating the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, but you should know her name and her story.

She was Isabel Rivera González.

Rivera was 80. She loved to dance, and was known in this hilly enclave of Puerto Rico for her Saturday-night merengue moves. In family photos displayed at her funeral last week, she was shown laughing near a shoreline as flamingos tiptoed behind her. In a black-and-white image, she beamed as she held an infant, one of her five children. Those children described their mother as healthy and full of energy late into her years -- a woman who lit up a room.

Rivera survived Hurricane Maria on September 20 huddled next to her boyfriend, Demencio Olmeda, 76. The storm's winds tore out their curtains and windows, swirling debris in the sky, knocking out power and water service and killing, officially, 51 people.

"I will remember her every day," Olmeda told me.

On 15 October 2017, three weeks after the storm, Rivera died awaiting a procedure at a hospital that had lost power in the hurricane and whose backup generator failed, according to several of her family members. Such deaths -- those of people who might be alive if not for the storm -- should be analyzed as part of the US territory's efforts to tally hurricane mortality, said Héctor Pesquera, secretary of Puerto Rico's Department of Public Safety, which oversees the count.

Yet Rivera's death was not assessed or counted in connection with Hurricane Maria's death toll, CNN learned after interviewing Puerto Rican and federal officials, as well as funeral home directors and hospital administrators in Rivera's municipality, Arecibo, located about an hour west of San Juan, the capital. […]

One of the largest hospitals in Arecibo, Hospital Pavia, declined to comment for this story. On 5 October 2017, hospital officials told NPR that 49 bodies had been taken there since the storm, likely including some from neighboring municipalities. José J. Martínez, who owns Funeraria San Luis, down the street, told me he visited the hospital shortly after the storm. Bodies were piled on top of one another in the morgue, which was clearly beyond capacity, he said.

"The vast majority of the bodies were decomposed," he said. "It was a horrendous smell."

José S. Rosado, executive director of Manatí Medical Center, where Rivera died, told me that no deaths from that hospital had been sent to San Juan for forensic analysis. Only blunt trauma, drownings, falls, crime scene victims and bodies that are found dead on arrival should be sent to the capital for analysis, he said. That conflicts with instructions Pesquera told me were distributed to all hospitals in Puerto Rico, which he said included indirect causes of death. […]

It is improbable the official hurricane death toll is high enough, said Martínez, the funeral home owner. His funeral home processed 12 bodies in the month after the storm, he said.

"I suspect most of them were probably from the hurricane," Martínez told me. He cited an example of a woman who died of an apparent heart attack while waiting in line for fuel.

"The numbers just don't add up." [more]

Puerto Rico's uncounted hurricane deaths

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