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Corpses pile up in Puerto Rico's morgues

A pedestrian passes in front of refrigerated shipping containers with unidentified bodies parked outside of the Institute of Forensic Sciences in Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico, on June 11, 2018.

June 28, 2018 01:23 pm Updated: June 28, 2018 01:24 pm

A grisly measure of the difficulty rebuilding Puerto Rico can be found in refrigerated trailers behind a makeshift barrier in a San Juan parking lot.

Inside, according to lawmakers and forensic sciences department employees, are the cadavers of several dozen people who perished in the tumultuous months after Hurricane Maria made landfall in September. So many have accumulated -- 297 by mid-June -- that the agency turned to supplemental storage outside its headquarters.

The morbid backlog has exposed broad operational flaws years in the making as Puerto Rico's finances deteriorated and its bureaucracy grew ever more torpid. Sixty-four cadavers are victims of Maria; others were killed in a subsequent crime wave. But a major part of the 52-percent increase in the number of bodies, compared with pre-storm levels, is due to what happens -- or doesn't -- when cadavers arrive at the facility.

Employees say the department is ill-equipped and undermanned, thanks to low pay and migration that had seen the island's population decline by around 300,000 over five years to 3.3 million, even before Maria. Thirty employees resigned in the year ending June 30, leaving the staff at 240, according to Monica Menendez, the subcommissioner responsible for the department. Many fled for mainland jobs, which Menendez said can pay twice as much and can be even more lucrative with special certifications and greater experience.

"The department's workers are living through agony," said Annette Gonzalez, president of the union that represents them.

The shambolic operation shows the challenges for Gov. Ricardo Rossello as the bankrupt U.S. commonwealth attempts simultaneously to repay creditors and pensioners due $120 billion, repair its infrastructure and remake a government defined for decades by corruption and inefficiency.

The commonwealth has 118 agencies, a quarter of its non-farm workers are on the public payroll and signs of bloated and ineffective government are everywhere. The sewer utility loses much of its water to leaks; the electric utility charges above-mainland rates for unreliable service; and the corrections system is so outdated that Rossello may have to turn to private stateside prisons. Now comes the forensic department.

Rossello said Monday that he knows how critical the agency is, adding that a reorganization he's engineering should ultimately make the government more efficient throughout. But even with the best intentions, many Puerto Ricans think the task may be too daunting.

Former employee Ashmin Irizarry, a 37-year-old father of two, said he moved to Houston in January, and is making 50 percent more in his job as forensic investigator, traveling regularly to investigate deaths and helping identify the dead.

"I left because the money wasn't going far and because of everything that was happening in the department," said Irizarry. "You miss your family and friends, but I don't regret the rest."

Reports of the body backlog started appearing this month, prompting lawmakers to order an investigation. On June 14, department employees held a protest outside.

Workers say they contend with substandard conditions. Trucks to transfer bodies from crime scenes aren't serviceable and lifts to move cadavers are defective, according to a statement by United Public Servants of Puerto Rico Council 95, the union that represents the workers. It takes three or four people to lift dead-weight bodies by hand, and workers are frequently injured doing so, according to Gonzalez, the labor group's leader.

The boxy, faded orange-and-white Forensic Sciences complex sits at the edge of the high-crime Reparto Metropolitano neighborhood. On a recent day, four refrigerator trailers marked Crowley -- a Jacksonville, Florida-based shipping company -- were behind a barbed-wire barrier in the parking lot. Later, they were partly concealed behind a chain-link fence covered with a black tarp.

Dozens of bodies are stranded because relatives simply haven't picked them up, in many cases because of financial hardship and fear that they can't afford to bury their loved ones, according to Karixia Ortiz, spokeswoman for Forensic Sciences.

Menendez, the subcommissioner, said it was typical to have one refrigerator truck on hand even before the storm. But now they have five, with four provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. As of June 16, the trucks were holding 51 cadavers.

Nine months after the storm, little is clear about how many people actually died in Maria and the ensuing months of limited or no electricity. But most observers now agree that the island's official death count of 64 is implausibly low. A Harvard University-funded study suggested the real count could be more than 5,000, which would make the storm more deadly than Hurricane Katrina in 2005. But due to the government's opacity, the researchers were forced to extrapolate the figure from a small survey.

Public Safety Secretary Hector Pesquera, who at post-Maria press conferences rebuked those who challenged the count, not only remains in his position, but Rossello has given him additional responsibility. This year, he took charge of the Forensic Sciences Department, which was absorbed by the Public Security Department as part of Rossello's efforts to make government leaner.

In an email, Pesquera said his office knows of the requests for help from Forensic Sciences. "We're currently working on them and looking for options and alternatives," he said.

Rossello this week laid the blame on a familiar foe: a federal oversight board installed by U.S. lawmakers as part of a law that gave Puerto Rico access to a form of bankruptcy protection. The board has been pushing to cut spending and, in theory, make the commonwealth more attractive to businesses. Forensic Sciences is likely to see its budget of about $17 million drop as much as $2 million in the next fiscal year.

"If we leave an entity as important as Forensic Sciences inoperable, we're doing a disservice to the people of Puerto Rico," Rossello told reporters in San Juan.

If the cuts go through, Gonzalez, the union leader, said they would be the last straw.

"That would be fatal for the the department," she said.