Foul Odor Reported From FEMA Trailers Holding Post-Maria Dead

By Yalixa Rivera and Jonathan Levin | July 23, 2018

Residents and visitors to one San Juan neighborhood recently noticed an alarming new smell coming from a parking lot near Puerto Rico’s forensic sciences department, raising concerns that it could be the bodies of those who perished in the tumultuous months after Hurricane Maria.

“It smelled like dead rat,” said Wilfredo Ortega, who occasionally comes to an area restaurant on breaks from his job as a clinical assistant at a nearby hospital.

On Thursday, reports of the foul odor prompted a visit from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA, according to Karixia Ortiz, a spokeswoman for forensic sciences.

It wasn’t immediately clear what the smell was, but the shear fact of the cadavers in a parking lot is a grisly testament to Puerto Rico’s challenges. Lawmakers and employees have said that they contained several dozen people who perished after Maria made landfall in September. The forensic sciences department fielded many more bodies than they could process in a timely fashion, and they turned to trailers provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency for auxiliary storage.

A report on local television station WAPA Wednesday showed one resident covering his nose and what appeared to be a cleanup effort unfolding before the television camera. The station said the forensic sciences department eventually parked a vehicle to block the camera person’s view.

On a visit to the site, the odor appeared to have gone away, but several people at a local restaurant confirmed the stench.

Ortiz, the spokeswoman, said the bodies remaining in the trailers are waiting to be claimed by family members. She said the department hadn’t received complaints from neighbors, nor were they aware of the alleged smell. She said the bodies are being kept at 32-34 degrees Fahrenheit.

FEMA said in an emailed statement that it was aware of news reports involving the refrigerated containers on chassis it supplied. But it said the commonwealth hadn’t requested further support, and it referred all questions to the forensic sciences department.

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