'My Father Is In There': Anguish Builds In Puerto Rico Mountains Over Decimated Tombs The damage to 1,800 tombs in the Lares Municipal Cemetery was so extensive — and so horrifying — that health officials locked the cemetery gates after Hurricane Maria. They haven't been reopened.
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'My Father Is In There': Anguish Builds In Puerto Rico Mountains Over Decimated Tombs

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'My Father Is In There': Anguish Builds In Puerto Rico Mountains Over Decimated Tombs

'My Father Is In There': Anguish Builds In Puerto Rico Mountains Over Decimated Tombs

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Puerto Rico is inching toward recovery. More than a year after Hurricane Maria, the power and running water are back for most people. Tourists are back, too. Still, there are many places that look just like they did after the storm. NPR's Adrian Florido reports from the site of the municipal cemetery in Lares, a town high up in the central mountain range.

ADRIAN FLORIDO, BYLINE: Hurricane Maria dropped so much rain on this old cemetery that the hillside it's built on collapsed. The landslide damaged almost 1,800 concrete tombs, cracking them, tearing them apart, sending caskets tumbling down the hill. The cemetery's been closed ever since. But people still show up at the locked double gates, anxious to get in. Jose Luis Rivera Lopez came from Philadelphia hoping to visit the graves of his parents. He points through the fence.

JOSE LUIS RIVERA LOPEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: "See that palm tree over there?" he asks. "That is where my dad and my grandfather and my mom are." Then he points further down the hill, where you can make out all the cracked and damaged tombs.

RIVERA LOPEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: "But way down there," he says, "that is where my sister is. The mudslide carried her casket away." On the locked gates keeping him out, there's a big sign. There will be no access until further notice, it reads.

RIVERA LOPEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: Rivera says it hurts not being allowed in. "We all want to fix up our family's tombs," he says, "bring them flowers. But we can't because if we try to cross the fence, they'll arrest us."

RIVERA LOPEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

(SOUNDBITE OF CHURCH BELLS RINGING)

FLORIDO: Like most towns in Puerto Rico, Lares is built around a plaza, the Catholic church on one side, City Hall on the other. In his office there, Mayor Roberto Pagan Centeno says the destruction of the town's only cemetery and its indefinite closure has devastated residents.

ROBERTO PAGAN CENTENO: (Through interpreter) I get complaints every day. I get people pleading with me to let them in to check on their families' tombs or to clean them. It happens every day.

FLORIDO: His answer has been the same for the past year. He says it's out of his hands. Puerto Rico's health department has declared the cracked, open graves a critical health risk. The mayor says there's only one solution.

PAGAN CENTENO: (Through interpreter) We're going to have to exhume all of the bodies in the damaged tombs.

FLORIDO: Around 4,000 cadavers. His plan is to move them to a new cemetery if he can ever get it built. It's a huge project that the mayor says his town has neither the money nor the expertise for. He says the island's health secretary has promised to help but hasn't.

PAGAN CENTENO: (Through interpreter) There is a lot of talk, but so far there's been no concrete plans to resolve the situation.

FLORIDO: Meanwhile, people all over Lares have grown desperate and angry. Alongside one of Lares' narrow mountain roads stands the house of Sotero Viera and his wife, Nereida Maldonado. They sit on their porch and recount their ordeal. After the hurricane, Viera tried again and again to get into the Lares cemetery to check on their daughter Madeline's tomb. But he kept getting turned away. Finally, the old man had had enough. He pushed his way past a cemetery administrator, who threatened to call the police.

SOTERO VIERA: (Through interpreter) I told her, look, you go ahead and call the police. You can call the governor, too. Call the president. But I am going to go check on my daughter's tomb.

FLORIDO: The police came. They didn't arrest him. What Viera saw as he walked through the cemetery shocked him.

VIERA: (Through interpreter) I saw broken caskets. I saw skeletons. And there was a stench.

FLORIDO: When he reached his daughter's tomb, he saw the marble slab covering her coffin had been knocked off. He looked down and saw her casket. He covered the hole with a blue tarp he'd brought, the same kind others on the island were using as roofs. He went home and told his wife when he'd seen.

NEREIDA MALDONADO: (Through interpreter) My soul, my heart, my everything. We couldn't leave her there.

FLORIDO: It had been 25 years since they'd buried Madeline there. She was killed in a carjacking when she was 24. It didn't take long for Maldonado and Viera to reach the conclusion that officials were doing nothing to fix the cemetery. So Viera marched into the health department on the day after Christmas and he got a permit to exhume his daughter's body. He shows it to me.

VIERA: (Through interpreter) My daughter was my daughter, and I still love her even though she's dead. So I got her out of there. I took her away. And you know what? A lot of people are doing the same thing.

FLORIDO: Puerto Rico's health department says that since then more than 50 people have applied for permits to exhume bodies from the Lares municipal cemetery. Nereida Maldonado says this was the worst part of Hurricane Maria, not the damage to their house or the months without electricity. It was having to dig up their Madeline's body and rebury it in a cemetery far from home.

MALDONADO: (Through interpreter) We used to visit our daughter almost every week. We kept her tomb immaculate. And now we can't. I still cry.

FLORIDO: Sotero Viera says that when they lowered Madeline's casket into the ground for a second time, his wife collapsed into his arms.

VIERA: (Through interpreter) Don't you see? She was reliving all the anguish we'd already gone through so many years ago.

FLORIDO: The man who handled their daughter's burial both times is Luis Salcedo. He owns the oldest funeral home in Lares. He says what's happened at the cemetery has set off an emotional crisis in town, not just for the people whose relatives are or were buried in the cemetery, also for people whose relatives have recently died and had expected to be buried there. Instead, their families are having to bury their loved ones in cemeteries far from home.

LUIS SALCEDO: (Through interpreter) I've never seen people with so much anguish in their faces, using the kind of language I never thought I'd hear from them.

FLORIDO: Salcedo says, in Lares, everyone wants to know, when will this be fixed? More than a year after the hurricane, no one's provided any answers. Adrian Florido, NPR News, Lares, Puerto Rico.

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