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FEMA denies Puerto Rico request for help processing backlog of bodies

Bodies piling up in Puerto Rico's morgue

Washington — Although the Federal Emergency Management Agency denied Puerto Rico's request to dispatch forensic units to Puerto Rico to help process a mounting backlog of bodies, the island's government has received a much-need reprieve. The fiscal board which controls spending in the U.S. territory will allow Gov. Ricardo Rosselló to use $1.5 million in funding to curtail the backlog in the island's morgue.

The current backlog of bodies at the Forensic Sciences Institute, which is the island's version of a medical examiner in the mainland, is part of a systemic issue that has been plaguing the U.S. territory for years because of mismanagement, underfunding and understaffing. The death toll and chaos of hurricanes Maria and Irma exacerbated the situation, which has forced many families to wait weeks before receiving the bodies of their loved ones.

Rosselló told CBS News the seven-member fiscal oversight board — created by the 2016 Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act, known as PROMESA — accepted the $1.5 million disbursement to fund the human resources department of the morgue in San Juan. Rosselló said the morgue could only have one pathologist on duty to process bodies from the entire island on some occasions.

"The Board considered the Forensics Institute's requests for budgetary assistance a top priority, and has worked for months with the Institute and other government officials to identify the appropriate offsets in spending to allocate the requested resources," a spokesperson for the board wrote in a statement to CBS News. "We are with the people of Puerto Rico and we will continue to work with the Institute to support this essential function of government."

Rosselló had said that the backlog couldn't be stabilized without immediate assistance from the federal government, particularly the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and FEMA. But in a letter obtained by CBS News dated Feb. 20, FEMA denied the Puerto Rican government's request to deploy a second Disaster Mortuary Operations Response Team (DMORT), citing the lack of an "immediate disaster-related threat."

In the letter, signed by FEMA official Michael Byrne, the agency noted that a DMORT deployment in the summer of 2018 had helped Puerto Rico's morgue reduce a backlog of 240 bodies by performing 188 autopsies. Byrne said FEMA's team conducted an assessment of the backlog in the island's morgue and provided the Puerto Rican government a list of recommendations to address "underlying issues"— including an insufficient number forensic pathologists, a lack of adequate equipment and the need to implement "new processes."

But the FEMA official said these issues could be not be "attributed" to the natural disasters that struck the island, which triggered the first DMORT deployment.

"These and the other courses of action ... address systemic problems resulting from issues and shortcomings that pre-date the disasters and/or cannot be attributed to the effects of the disasters," Byrne said, presumably referring to hurricanes María and Irma.

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