Donations sent to Puerto Rico were found rotting in parking lot

Donated food sent to Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria were left to rot in a parking lot of a government facility, CBS News corresondent David Begnaud reported Friday. Additionally, there are about 10 containers filled with non-perishable supplies that sat at the government facility for 11 months.

Video of supplies covered in rodent droppings was first posted by a Puerto Rican radio station. The trailers with the containers were locked Friday when CBS News arrived. 

The National Guard said in a statement the donations that been highlighted were not distributed because they were expired. Stored items that were not expired would be distributed in the coming days, the National Guard said. 

Nicolás Gautier, an  official at the facility, told CBS News one of of the containers had “food for dogs, and apparently several of the boxes were broken. After the placement in the van, that brings a lot of rats and it infected everything.”   

The goods were at Puerto Rico’s elections commission, which has been serving as a collection site for donations. 

The Puerto Rican government said earlier this week that there were 1,427 deaths “more than normal” in the four months after Hurricanes Maria and Irma, which passed just north of the island. Initially, Puerto Rican officials had said there were only 64 deaths from the storm.

CBSN Originals team was in Puerto Rico two weeks ago. They visited a morgue that has a backlog of roughly 300 unidentified bodies waiting to undergo autopsy. 

The facility has been backlogged for years, but the issue was exacerbated by Hurricane Maria, the team reported.

CBS News’ David Begnaud said that five 18-wheeler units housing unidentified bodies sit in the back of the facility, and that one trailer has housed people for at least up to three years. He said that the CBSN Originals team was invited to visit the site at the request of the governor’s press secretary following news reports on the island about a foul odor coming from the back of the facility.

“We were taken to one of the trailers. The door was open. And the smell was pungent,” Begnaud said. “That you would expect … because there are bodies inside. But the bottom line: when we were there, we did not smell a foul odor.”

A forthcoming document from Puerto Rico’s Department of Health, however, is expected to make mention of an odor coming from the facility, according to Begnaud. 

Reports on the issue appear to have prompted Puerto Rican officials to take action. They recently reached out to FEMA requesting money and personnel. 

On Tuesday, 13 Puerto Rican National Guardsmen arrived at the forensics sciences center where they will serve as mortuary officers, helping to receive and transfer bodies. Radiologists, pathologists and dentists have also been requested to help process the backlog of unidentified bodies, and are expected to arrive on the island in the coming weeks. 

Begnaud reports that the backlog is just one of many issues on the island. While things have improved nearly a year after Maria hit, the problems in Puerto Rico are so systemic and have been around for so long that even improvements that are being made are only pecking away at the surface, he said.

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