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Nearly One Year After Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rican Morgues are Still in a Crisis

3 minute read

(Bloomberg) — Workers from Puerto Rico’s beleaguered forensic sciences department moved two corpses from stop-gap refrigerator trailers in the early hours of Tuesday, after there were complaints about a foul odor and before federal inspectors arrived.

The grisly episode sheds new light on the challenges at the morgue, which has become a symbol of dysfunction in the bankrupt commonwealth. After Hurricane Maria last September, the department was overwhelmed with more bodies than it could efficiently process, and turned to auxiliary storage provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Workers and lawmakers have said the backlog reflects both a surge in mortality as well as understaffing and a lack of basic equipment.

This week, reports of a bad smell near the trailers prompted inspections from local and federal authorities, including the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration. The bodies were moved about 4 a.m., according to Juan Oscar Morales, president of the health committee in Puerto Rico’s lower congressional chamber. Karixia Ortiz, a forensic sciences spokeswoman, confirmed his account.

Going Home

One body was in an advanced state of decomposition, said Morales, who visited the site in San Juan and initially disclosed the early-morning goings-on. That body was brought inside the forensic-sciences building, while the other was retrieved by family members, both Morales and Ortiz said.

Governor Ricardo Rossello told reporters on Friday that the inspections didn’t turn up any concerns. But it wasn’t immediately clear whether OSHA knew of the removed remains. A spokesman for the U.S. Department of Labor — of which OSHA is a part — didn’t have an immediate response to the developments.

The U.S. commonwealth is struggling to simultaneously to pay creditors and pensioners due $120 billion in aggregate, repair its infrastructure and remake a government defined for decades by corruption and inefficiency. The morgue, which has lost employees in an exodus to the mainland, has become a focus of popular anger.

Snap Inspection

Almost 300 corpses had accumulated by mid-June. Sixty-four were victims of Maria, others of a crime wave after the storm. Still others, according to some reports, had been brought to the morgue long before that.

Morales, the lawmaker, said that there were still “objectionable odors” in the area of the trailers, which are in the department’s parking lot. “When you get close to the doors of the trailers, it’s more than evident,” he said, speaking by phone from the site. Morales said his committee is seeking a court order to gain full access to the trailers.

He said he arrived at 10 a.m. Friday for a surprise inspection, but the department wouldn’t admit him access because he was accompanied by reporters. He said 76 cadavers were being stored in five trailers, and the containers aren’t properly insulated to deal with the summer heat of Puerto Rico.

“It’s a pity that this is happening,” he said. “What we want is to help, to see what is happening and find a solution.”

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