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The hurricane that wrecked so many lives in Puerto Rico also disrupted efforts to honor the dead. NPR first reported last December on a cemetery that was still closed. The storm caused a landslide that affected nearly 1,800 graves in the mountain town of Lares. Yesterday, some - but not all - residents got a chance to return to that cemetery. NPR's Adrian Florido reports that it came on a poignant day.
ADRIAN FLORIDO, BYLINE: The occasion was Mother's Day. And yesterday, a little before 8 a.m., the city official stood before the gates and reminded the crowd that only a part of the cemetery was reopening.
UNIDENTIFIED LARES CITY OFFICIAL: (Speaking Spanish).
FLORIDO: He said, "the rest was blocked off by a plastic fence. Please don't cross it."
(SOUNDBITE OF GATE OPENING)
UNIDENTIFIED LARES CITY OFFICIAL: (Speaking Spanish). OK?
FLORIDO: The crowd streamed in, and Orlando Gonzalez got to work scrubbing the filth off the marble slab covering his mother's tomb and engraved with her name. And he said he had a confession.
ORLANDO GONZALEZ: (Speaking Spanish).
FLORIDO: "I broke the rules last night," he said. At 9:30, he'd hopped the cemetery fence and poured bleach all over the marble slab to loosen almost two years' worth of grime.
GONZALEZ: (Speaking Spanish).
FLORIDO: Now he was scrubbing it off proudly, he said, for his mother.
But people like Gonzalez, who actually got to see their mothers' tombs, were few yesterday. Many more were like Esther Perez, frustrated or disappointed or furious because, upon entering the cemetery, they realized their mothers' graves remain off-limits.
ESTHER PEREZ: (Speaking Spanish).
FLORIDO: "The mayor went on TV and everything and said it would be ready for Mother's Day," Perez said. "What's ready? A third - not even a third of the cemetery. This mayor is worthless," she said. The mayor, Roberto Pagan Centeno, stood nearby.
ROBERTO PAGAN CENTENO: (Speaking Spanish).
FLORIDO: "We came to an agreement with the health department," the mayor said, "because they are the ones who say how much access we can give. We can't break the law."
The crisis at the cemetery, he said, is the biggest he's faced during his 15 years in office. The mayor says every day, desperate residents show up at city hall and demand to know when the cemetery will open. This is a town where tradition and reverence for the dead run deep, he said. Carmen Roman said the 20 months since the storm had been a nightmare. Before the storm, she and her mother, Eligia Gonzalez, would visit her grandmother's grave not just on Mother's Day.
CARMEN ROMAN: (Speaking Spanish).
FLORIDO: They also came several times a week to clean her tomb, she said. They haven't been able to do that at all. On Sunday, mother and daughter arrived at the cemetery with flowers in hand, only to learn the grave was in the part of the cemetery that remained closed.
ROMAN: (Speaking Spanish).
FLORIDO: "We feel really hurt by this," Roman said. "God is shedding tears." The mayor, Roberto Pagan Centeno, said it'll be a long time before this town's ordeal is over. The plan is to exhume about 5,000 cadavers from the damaged section and move them to a new cemetery he is building nearby. Two weeks ago, the Federal Emergency Management Agency approved $2.3 million to begin the work. But the entire project, the mayor said, will cost 30 to 50 million, and it could take years to complete.
Adrian Florido, NPR News, Lares, Puerto Rico.
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