Maria’s Bodies


“Maria’s Bodies” is a heart-wrenching article by Mattathias Schwartz (with additional reporting by Rebecca Banuchi and impressive photos by Matt Black) in New York magazine. It describes the three months of trauma and loss on an island that remains invisible and isolated. Schwartz says: “Of the many curses that befell Puerto Rico this year, the most infuriating may be invisibility. Because of its isolation, its lack of political representation, and the deceptively low number of casualties counted by early reports, the island had mostly faded from public consciousness throughout the fall.” See detailed article and accompanying videos and photographs at New York.

On Wednesday, September 20, the eye of Hurricane Maria cut a slash directly across the island of Puerto Rico, from the southeast to the northwest. It arrived shortly after six in the morning, near the harbor at Yabucoa. Wind gusts peaked at 155 miles an hour, bending palm trees like straws and snapping others off near the roots. The storm’s center was 50 to 60 miles across — more than half the length of the island. It rolled at the leisurely pace of about ten miles an hour and hovered above the island’s mountainous center well into the morning. The wind tore hundreds of electrical-transmission towers from the ground and carried some of them through the air. Sheets of earth fell from the hillsides, smashing houses and erasing roads. The death toll began immediately: In the town of Utuado, a landslide came through the wall of a house where three elderly sisters had taken refuge, burying them alive. The island’s electrical grid and mobile-phone networks went down. At the headquarters of the bankrupt electric utility, the backup generator stopped working, as did the computer server, cutting off the chief executive from his own records. For the next few hours, the highest levels of the Puerto Rican government were paralyzed as officials struggled to obtain accurate information. But the scope of what had happened began to reveal itself soon enough. Bodies began to pile up beyond the capacity of the dark and fetid morgues.

During those first hours at Centro Médico, Puerto Rico’s largest, most sophisticated hospital, Maria tore off part of the roof and flooded the neonatal-intensive-care unit, forcing the evacuation of newborns to another floor. [. . . ]

On September 22, Pedro J. Reyes Martínez, a 58-year-old orthopedic surgeon, showed up to work at Centro Médico and found the hospital in disarray. Centro Médico is a complex with more than 1,000 beds spread across six hospitals. The main emergency and trauma building, called ASEM, with 230 beds, was running on a single Caterpillar generator. Most of the lights were dark. Three out of four elevators were still not running. A small number of red emergency plugs, connected to critical patients, provided power. The building was too hot and moist for Reyes Martínez to perform any surgery. He returned on the 26th to find 57 patients awaiting surgery; he handled four of them. “There was no sterile equipment left,” he told me. “With a proper facility, I could have done ten or 15.”

Reyes Martínez calls ASEM “the safety net for the entire island.” For the first nine days after the hurricane, he told me, only two of its 18 operating rooms were functional, mainly because of a lack of air-conditioning. He would return nine days later to find that little had improved. He remembers performing surgery on five patients, less than half of what he would have been capable of had there been the normal amount of equipment and electricity. At the same time, the hospital was seeing more fractures — wrists, shoulders, hips — as people tried to acclimate to the darkness on the roads and in their homes. “You cannot have the main medical center in Puerto Rico, which serves 3.5 million people, without a reliable source of power for an entire month,” he said.

[. . .] The dead continued to pile up as October passed. At the Institute of Forensic Sciences in San Juan, FEMA brought 11 refrigerated trailers to hold the excess. Specially trained Army morticians tended to the bodies of dead U.S. civilians, cleaning their wounds and preparing them for autopsy. “It’s an honor,” said Sergeant Luis Quiñones, who grew up in Puerto Rico. “I never thought I’d be doing it here at home.” The government had not yet assigned a cause of death for 313 of September’s dead, not to mention the 527 of October’s. For the previous two years, deaths by unknown causes were in the single digits for both months. [. . .]

[Photo above by Matt Black/Magnum Photos; “A Graveyard Upended”: The hurricane toppled gravestones and uprooted trees at San Juan’s Villa Palmeras cemetery. November 5.]

For full article, photos, and videos, see

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