One man’s tale shows how casualties of Maria go beyond official death toll
COROZAL, Puerto Rico — He was a patient man who rarely betrayed his emotions, a father of six who didn’t want to trouble anyone for something he could do himself, even with his condition.
The four-bedroom home where he and his wife had lived for nearly four decades had been badly damaged during the storm, and they were now staying with a daughter who lived nearby, where there was no power or running water, like just about everywhere else on the island.
Still, Victor Hugo Ruiz didn’t complain.
When their cars began to run low on fuel — a crucial commodity, as he now used a car battery to power the machine helping to treat his emphysema — the 64-year-old retired bartender found a canister and walked to a gas station about a half mile from his daughter’s house in this small city near the island’s center.
“He was trying to fix things,” said Ana Ruiz, his wife.
It was early in the morning, less than a week after Hurricane Maria ripped apart Puerto Rico. Ruiz and other neighbors waited there in a growing line in the hot sun. They continued to wait as night fell.
He passed the time playing cards with relatives and eating rice and beans, which they bought from a nearby food truck that charged them three times the normal price.
Later, his wife relieved him in line for about a half hour, so he could sleep briefly. Periodically, he would connect his machine to her old Suzuki SUV’s battery and inhale the solution that made it easier for him to breath.
“He was clearly tired,” said Reinaldo Ruiz, his brother, who spent part of the day with him.
Ruiz remained in line until about 7 p.m. the next day, Sept. 27 — about 35 hours after he had arrived.
It was then that a worker at a nearby propane gas plant opened a valve that had been damaged by the hurricane, sparking a fire that sent a cloud of black smoke over Corozal. Police officers ordered Ruiz and the others waiting for gas to evacuate the area immediately.
So the haggard man, who was known throughout the area for his skill making piña coladas at a local hotel and his prowess playing dominoes, lumbered into his wife’s SUV and began driving to his daughter’s house.
When he arrived, Ruiz opened the vehicle’s door and, with one leg out, lost consciousness. He was still wearing the inhaler connected to his breathing machine.
His wife was inside, taking insulin for her diabetes. When she found him parked outside, he awoke briefly. “I can’t breathe,” he told her.
Before long, Ruiz was dead.
. . .
Officials in Puerto Rico have counted 39 people who had died on the island as the result of the hurricane.
But that number didn’t include Ruiz or many others like him who perished after the fierce winds and ruinous flooding had abated.
Indeed, with communications crippled across nearly the entire island and insufficient fuel for people to get around, the number of dead may be significantly higher. The death toll is likely to grow, as more of the island’s 3.4 million residents succumb to the strains of living without electricity, running water, and easy access to medical care.
The challenges are so great across the island that it has become difficult to bury the dead.
Many of the island’s roughly 200 funeral homes have closed, lacking generators to chill the cadavers and keep them from decomposing. Meanwhile, morgues have been operating at capacity or beyond.
At the HIMA San Pablo in Caguas, just south of San Juan, hospital officials said they had to start stacking bodies on top of one another to make space.
“We haven’t been able to reach many of the funeral homes,” said Jean Enriquez Ruiz, the hospital’s contract coordinator.
The demand for space at the Center for Forensic Sciences in San Juan, where those who die outside a hospital must be taken to obtain a death certificate, had increased so much that they’re receiving help from the military.
About 50 soldiers from the Army Reserve have set up a base behind coiled razor wire at the center, where they’re operating four mobile morgues that can hold 16 cadavers each.
“We’re doing our best to help our population get through this,” said Major Ruth Castro, a spokeswoman for the Army Reserve at Fort Buchanan in San Juan.
At the Funeraria Hernández in Corozal, where Ruiz would be taken, the funeral home had received 18 bodies less than two weeks after the hurricane — nearly double the number they usually receive in a month.
“A lot of people with preexisting conditions, it seems, are dying from the stress,” said Mary Carmen, the funeral director.
Because relatives of the dead haven’t been able to reach the funeral home by phone, many have been walking into Carmen’s office, delivering the deceased on their own.
When they haven’t been able to get there, as many roads remained littered with fallen trees and downed powerlines, Carmen has had to rent a four-wheel vehicle to collect the dead.
There has also been the challenge of getting the required paperwork signed. It’s illegal under most circumstances to bury the dead without proper authorization.
Before the storm, getting a death certificate at the Center for Forensic Sciences would often take less than a half hour, if there were no signs of violence. Now the refrigerated vans operated by funeral homes snake around the center in long lines, and it takes as much as seven hours for pathologists to complete the required photos, fingerprints, and weighing before the paperwork can be signed, Carmen said.
With just two other employees on staff, Carmen has had to delay funerals, spending more of her time searching for diesel to keep her generators running and gas to fuel her hearse.
The extra work has also raised her expenses. She expects to lose $3,000 a month until electricity is restored, which officials have said could take until next year.
“I have 23 years working as a funeral director, and I have never seen as many difficulties as now,” she said.
. . .
Five days after Victor Ruiz died, his embalmed body was lying in the air-conditioned parlor at Funeraria Hernández, where a generator hummed in the distance and nearly 100 friends and relatives had gathered.
Many of them fingered rosary beads and wailed as they approached the casket, where the bearded man with the groomed salt and pepper hair lay in a pressed, powder-blue guayabera.
Beneath fluorescent lights and electric votive candles, Kariana Ruiz stood over her father’s body, rubbing her belly. She was five months pregnant and heartbroken. Her father would never get to meet her unborn daughter.
“I don’t have the words to express how I feel, but I blame the hurricane,” she said.
Like many others on the island, she was eager to leave and move to her sister’s in Florida.
But she was worried about her mother, whose diabetes requires constant treatment with insulin, which has to be refrigerated.
“This is hard on all of us,” said Kariana Ruiz, a preschool teacher who had just been fired from her job because her school remained closed. “This island isn’t the same place as it was before.”
When an employee of the funeral home began turning a knob to close the casket, the tears flowed and relatives said their final goodbyes. “Many people loved you,” one said.
With relatives holding her up, Ana Ruiz clutched a crucifix and shook her head.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do,” she said. “He was such a good husband.”
Pallbearers wheeled the silver casket to a 20-year-old Cadillac Fleetwood; Puerto Rico’s single-starred flag hung out the driver’s window.
The white hearse led a line of vehicles through the devastated community, where many of the homes lacked roofs, and utility lines dangled dangerously over the road.
After the procession arrived at the Corozal Memorial Park, they gathered in a humid chapel, where a short-sleeved priest apologized for the lack of air conditioning and music. He noted how three of Ruiz’s children who live on the mainland were unable to come to the funeral, as it was too hard to get a flight after the hurricane.
“We won’t let this get us down,” the priest said.
Pallbearers then wheeled the casket down a hill, where many of the surrounding gravestones were covered by debris and artificial flowers blown from their urns.
Reinaldo Ruiz noted that another sibling who lives on the island couldn’t be reached and probably had no idea that their brother had died. Another daughter, Luz Viviana, searched for words to explain how she felt that some of her siblings couldn’t be there. “It’s hard,” she said.
The procession moved into a large, open-air chamber with hundreds of crypts.
Relatives boosted the casket into Ruiz’s final resting place, pushing in the white roses and covering the opening with a wood plank, which they secured with caulk and spackle.
There were more prayers, and more tears.
Then relatives heaved up the concrete covering, taking turns using a wrench to fasten the bolts.
. . .
Afterward, as her relatives departed, Ana Ruiz slipped into her Suzuki, the car where her husband died. The windshield remained shattered after part of her garage’s metal roof collapsed onto it during the hurricane.
She steered through the wreckage of her town, passing the gas station where her husband had waited so long without ever getting gas, and to her abandoned house. On her porch was an electric bill, even though there hadn’t been electricity in nearly two weeks.
As she walked through the two-story house — family photos on the walls now had mold, shattered windows littered the floor, and small pools of fetid water remained — she described how she had already thrown away ruined mattresses, a sofa, and other furniture they had owned for years.
But she didn’t dwell on her loss.
“I have lived the American Dream,” she said.
She pointed to the trophies her husband had won for mixing cocktails and in domino competitions.
“No matter how much we thought we were prepared, we weren’t,” she said. “This was the big one, the real one, that you can’t prepare for.”
Still, she wasn’t giving up.
“We spent too much time building this house, there are too many memories,” she said. “Tomorrow, I’ll begin cleaning up.”