For 18 consecutive days, Abie Benitez performed an excruciating ritual. She called Puerto Rico's morgue in San Juan, was put on hold for several minutes, provided her husband's name to the staff and asked them if his body had undergone autopsy so she could cremate him.
"They just told me I had to call every day," Benitez, 57, an educator in New Haven, Connecticut, told CBS News. "They couldn't assure me that I could regain his body for two or three weeks — and most probably, that the decomposition would be too bad for me to be able to see him."
Although they lived and worked in Connecticut, both Benitez and her husband William Benitez, 58, an avid swimmer and lifeguard instructor, were born in Puerto Rico, where they were planning to retire this summer. He traveled to the island alone in December to start exploring the possibility of offering lifeguard and CPR training to local residents once he retired.
Benitez said that on January 13, something — possibly a stroke — prevented her husband from staying afloat while he was swimming. Some good Samaritans tried to save and resuscitate him, she added, but he was pronounced dead by the time he was transported to a hospital.
Benitez flew to Puerto Rico the same day but was not allowed to see her husband's body. She identified him through a "tiny" photograph provided by the morgue. It was not until January 31, after staff had performed an autopsy on the body, that Benitez was able to see her husband and have a funeral home pick up his body to prepare it for cremation.
"I needed to see my husband's face because I saw so many things on the news about the bodies being all over and some people saying they've gotten the wrong bodies," she said. "For my own sake, I needed to see his face. I needed to see that it was him."
She was told the delay was a result of a mounting backlog of corpses handled by the Forensic Sciences Institute, which is the island's morgue and version of a medical examiner in the mainland.
One estimate from the office of Puerto Rico's governor puts the backlog at approximately 130 corpses. But that figure does not include bodies of individuals that have not been identified by family members.
Bodies piling up in Puerto Rico's morgue is not a new problem for the island. The backlog 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.
But the Puerto Rican government is now acknowledging that the backlog can't be stabilized without immediate and concerted assistance from the federal government, particularly the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
On Friday, Gov. Ricardo Rosselló met with HHS officials in Washington to follow up on a December 2018 request for more federal support to curtail the backlog.
Carlos Mercader, executive director of the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration, which represents the island's government in the U.S., told CBS News on Friday that Rosselló is asking for more pathologists, forensic experts and support staff from the mainland to assist the overwhelmed forensic team on the island. He conceded that the chief catalyst of the backlog is understaffing.
Although Mercader said the current backlog is 132 corpses, an official at the forensic institute who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak with the press, told CBS News the backlog is higher when considering the approximately 100 bodies of unidentified individuals that have not received autopsy. Because of the constant backlog, the official said the office prioritizes the bodies identified by family members.
The official said the root cause of the backlog problem — which he compared to an artery that, over time, gets clogged up due to diabetes and eventually leads to a stroke — is the same as for many of the other issues facing the island: the exodus of Puerto Ricans leaving for the mainland. Like police officers, he said, many pathologists and forensic staff opt to work in the mainland, where they are more likely to receive better pay and benefits than in Puerto Rico, which is still recovering from the devastation of two powerful hurricanes and reeling from years of economic instability.
He said morale among institute employees has reached worrisome levels because of understaffing, high demand, press reports of families blaming them for the backlog of bodies, and low salaries and benefits.
A spokesperson for the Puerto Rico Department of Public Safety, which oversees the morgue, didn't respond to CBS News' requests for comment.
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