Medical examiners faced many challenges such as a lack of electricity in identifying the victims of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. Harry Zohn, DMD, who teaches forensic dentistry at the Rutgers School of Dental Medicine (RSDM), travelled to the island as part of the federal Disaster Mortuary Operation Response Team last month to support identification efforts.
“There were several days of backup on cases for examiners there,” said Zohn. “We were there to help lighten the workload.
A dental forensicist, Zohn analyzes dental remains and records for information about the victims of crimes and disasters. As a volunteer, he has identified victims of the September 11 terrorist attacks, Hurricane Katrina, and plane crashes involving multiple casualties. During his two-week deployment in San Juan, he saw the hurricane’s widespread devastation.
“We saw everything, from roofs that were blown off to the many houses that were destroyed,” he said.
The official death toll from the hurricane is 58, but some experts estimate as many as 500 were left dead but could not be counted because of conditions on the island. Zohn and his team worked in a sequestered location, poring over dental x-rays with little information about the people they were helping to identify.
Phone and internet service was sporadic, and electricity flickered on and off. The team, which also included RSDM colleague Larry Dorbin, DMD, ate mostly military meals ready to eat and donated extra rations to city residents in need. Despite the tough physical and emotional toll of the work, Zohn finds forensics deeply gratifying.
“It’s important to give closure to families, and it’s important because I want to serve my country,” Zohn said. “It’s my way of giving back.”