Since the passing of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, federal officials in Washington have been fielding thousands of calls from relatives, sending out rescue teams on the island every hour to help those in need of medical attention.
Among the more heart-wrenching results from those calls: the recovery of a decomposing body.
The body belongs to a woman who apparently died as floodwaters were unleashed by the powerful storm in Carolina, a municipality on the northeast coast of Puerto Rico. Maria also knocked out power across the island, making communications nearly impossible.
The woman had been dead for more than 24 hours. The stench filled the dilapidated home, as trapped family members, who had no way of communicating with local officials on the island, wept nearby, hoping that their loved one would soon be removed and mourned in a more appropriate way.
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“In the middle of the storm, my cousin suffered a medical crisis and, with emergency services not being able to get to her, she died at my aunt’s house,” Patricia Rivera, who lives in Virginia, posted on Facebook on Thursday. She declined to reveal her cousin’s name. “Her body has been there for 24 hrs, in decomposition, and causing emotional suffering for the family inside the home.”
It’s not just those calling the telephone hotlines who have been in despair. The impact of Hurricane Maria has broken the hearts of many of the very people leading family reconnection and rescue efforts on national levels.
“There are about 60 volunteers answering and fielding phone calls around the clock right now. But what most don’t know is that the majority are from Puerto Rico and don’t know where their families are either,” said Pedro Derame, communications director for the territory’s Federal Affairs Administration in Washington.
“I still haven’t heard from most my own family,” he added. “My biggest worry is them running out of food.”
The nationwide effort by Puerto Rico’s Federal Affairs Administration — along with the Puerto Rico State Agency for Emergency and Disaster Management and a handful of public radio stations on the island — has managed to bring some sort of reassurance to anxious family members seeking answers.
Many of the phone banks were assembled and orchestrated by federal entities on the fly. Overnight, volunteers scrambled to assemble teams, create email addresses and increase website bandwidths to sustain high levels of traffic.
Volunteers from near and far have come together to build databases of caller information that will ultimately be used to reconnect loved ones. Dispatchers were trained on how to provide vital contact information for disaster relief teams in specific areas on the island, and how to pass along emergency recovery requests, such as the pickup of the body of the woman who died during the storm.
On Friday, the remains of Rivera’s relative were finally recovered and sent to a morgue, officials confirmed. The dead woman’s name has not been released.
But for some volunteers, getting word from family in Puerto Rico has been impossible.
Sixty-year-old Carmen Pastrana, who works for WIPR, Puerto Rico’s public radio station, was finally able to come in to the station to field calls on Friday after trees and downed power lines had left roads impassable.
“The whole island is dark and there is no water,” she told the Miami Herald. “I still haven’t been able to reach many of my family members and I live here. I know the pain these people are feeling when they call, crying and screaming, searching for their sons and daughters and mothers and fathers.”
Pastrana is one of many at radio stations taking calls, giving callers phone numbers for municipal officials in charge of disaster relief in 12 regions on the island.
“The way I’m looking at it is that I’m helping others, and if my family needs help, someone will help them,” she said.
Unlike Pastrana, however, stress began to take a toll on a volunteer at the same radio station.
“What I am seeing here in my community is the equivalent to the aftermath of an atomic bomb. It’s hard talking to people when you’re in the same position as them. I hope I helped but I have to take a break before I break down,” the man said by phone.
Then the line went dead.