The Invisible Dead
by Silverio Perez
Translated from the Spanish by Jessica Powell
It’s not a Halloween story. It’s a sad post-Hurricane Maria reality. For some irrational reason or because of an inexcusable bureaucratic failure, the Government of Puerto Rico is refusing to acknowledge dozens of hurricane-related deaths and, worse still, in the process, it is denying the families of the deceased their right to begin the necessary process of mourning.
There are countless stories. I will share one told to us by the extraordinary journalist Omaya Sosa Pascual of the Center for Investigative Journalism:
All you have to do find them is visit our towns’ city halls, police stations and funeral homes. Doctors acknowledge them as well, in private. But the government doesn’t want to see them. It refuses to document them.
Through interviews with mayors, municipal security and emergency management officers, relatives, and a review of death certificates, the Center for Investigative Journalism has identified 47 Hurricane Maria-related deaths in addition to the 55 that the government has identified.
Their investigation sheds light on the way that the state has revictimized the relatives of the people who have died due to circumstances related to the emergency, forcing them to comply with bureaucratic requirements at a time when the government itself has not made good on its obligations and, like the rest of Puerto Rico, is basically non-operational. Some of these victims’ families even had to spend days with the body of their loved one decomposing in their homes because neither the police nor the district attorney came to remove the body.
One case among many:
In addition to losing half of their house during the historic hurricane, Marta Rosa Colón, Ángel Luis Vázquez and their 12-year-old daughter also lost the patriarch of their family, 82-year-old Don Teodoro Colón. Colón, who was recovering at home from a stroke he had suffered the week before, and who was dependent on oxygen to keep him alive, died as the storm raged, in the early morning hours of September 20th, in the room in which he was sheltering with his daughter and granddaughter in the Damián Abajo de Orocovis neighborhood. That same day, when the winds began to die down, his son-in-law gathered up his courage and a machete and headed into town on foot in search of help.
After walking for four hours through landslides, a rising river and tangled undergrowth, he came to the police station where he was told that he could not move the body and that they could not come to help because the roads were impassable. In the village funeral home, Orocovis Memorial, he was told that they could not come for the body either.
Vázquez had to walk all the way back home, use an electric generator to start up the air conditioner to cool the body, and move the entire family into the next room, since the second floor of the house had been completely destroyed. No one came the following day either.
Desperate, he walked again to the village and went to the Center for Emergency Operations to beg for help and, despite the fact that they didn’t have the requisite legal paperwork to move a body, the municipality’s emergency responders and the employees of the funeral home agreed to help him. According to Willie Colón, the leader of the emergency crew and also a relative of the deceased, a group of ten men tried to come to remove the body that same afternoon, but the rains prevented them from reaching the house.
On the third day, the ten men returned in the early morning hours and were able to remove the body, which had already begun to decompose, carrying and dragging it through landslides, downed trees and the overflowing river, in order to bury it. Neither the police nor the district attorney came to certify the death. In fact, the funeral home confirmed that there is still no death certificate, as the Demographic Registry was not operational during that period of time.
To which I’ll add: This denial by the government is just like its refusal to admit to the White Fish scandal and to the incompetence of the executive director of AEE, Ricardo Ramos, who tendered his resignation late this week. It’s just like the refusal of our political leadership to admit that it lacks a feasible, believable, explicable plan – not for post-Maria Puerto Rico, not for Statehood, not for Autonomy, and especially not for the Commonwealth, which died long before Maria arrived. In this case, it is its own relatives/founders/defenders who refuse to accept it.
Puerto Rico does not deserve this incompetence from its leadership, the cruelty of the current government. We must continue to denounce it until we lose our voices from speaking up so loudly.
This is a part of a series of 24 chronicles that will be published weekly in English and Spanish, as a part of www.24weeks.us.