Officials in Puerto Rico have opened extra facilities outside official morgues to hold the bodies continually piling up in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, Bloomberg reports.
Nearly 300 cadavers have accumulated since mid-June, a 52 percent increase over pre-hurricane levels. The hurricane killed 64 of the people, whose bodies are now stored on refrigerated slabs. The rest were killed in a crime wave following the natural disaster.
More than highlighting the destructiveness of Maria, however, the morgues’ backlog exemplifies the financial and bureaucratic nightmare that has defined Puerto Rico in the 10 months since the hurricane damaged or destroyed most of the island’s infrastructure and electrical grid. (RELATED: Puerto Rico Utility Signs $900 Million Deal It Can’t Afford)
Before Maria, Puerto Rico had racked up the largest debt in U.S. government history. The island had been in a recession for a decade and half its residents lived below the poverty line.
Long before the hurricane hit, the systemic problems contributed to an exodus of around 300,000 Puerto Ricans. Post-hurricane emigration and poor wages and working conditions has bled the morgue’s staff by more than ten percent from a workforce of 270 down to around 240, Bloomberg reports.
“I left because the money wasn’t going far and because of everything that was happening in the department,” former employee Ashmin Irizarry, who moved his family to Texas in January, told Bloomberg. “You miss your family and friends, but I don’t regret the rest.”
The labor drain has slowed the ability of the morgue to identify and autopsy bodies before each can be cremated or buried. Puerto Rico’s Bureau of Forensic Sciences (BFS) has six pathologists that can process around 325 bodies annually, Newsweek reports.
“We’ve never been in this kind of situation before and we don’t want to reach this point,” BFS head Monica Menendez told Agence France Presse.
While Puerto Rico’s official death count remains at 64 while George Washington University completes a study on deaths after Maria, evidence suggests the actual amount could be thousands more. More than 1,400 people died in the last four months of 2017, according to data released June 12 by the Puerto Rican government.
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