In September 2017, Puerto Rico endured what would become known as the most destructive hurricane to hit the country in modern times: Hurricane Maria. In just over two weeks, the storm took more than 3,000 lives and cost the country more than $3.9 billion in damages, the effects of which are still felt to this day.
Budget cuts and depleted professional staff have left the country unable to identify many of the bodies in their overcrowded morgue, prompting the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors (ASCLD) and National Association of Attorneys (NAAG) to reach out to forensic anthropologists throughout the country.
Among this group of highly sought-after professionals is Mercyhurst’s own Dennis Dirkmaat, Ph.D., of the Applied Forensic Science department. Dirkmaat donated his time and talents in a recent trip to San Juan morgues, accompanied by Rhiann Dunn and Andrea Ost, two graduates of the master’s degree program who are now teaching at Mercyhurst,
Jan. 13-18, the team joined board-certified forensic anthropologists across the country, including those from Louisiana, Texas, Missouri and Washington, D.C. Experts from other fields of forensic science, including trace evidence, DNA and firearms, were also in attendance.
“The experience working with them was an incredible one,” Ost said. “It was very educational standardizing methodology and report templates between multiple individuals who work in different contexts. It was a pleasure to work with these board-certified forensic anthropologists to assist Puerto Rico.”
During their stay, the group assisted with analyses for the identification of unidentified individuals at the Forensic Science Institute of Puerto Rico.
“This work was important not only to assist the Forensic Sciences Institute in catching up on their case backlog, but also for implementing procedures in the morgue and establishing contacts,” Ost said. “Any of the board-certified forensic anthropologists who assisted on this trip would be happy to assist with identifications in the future, which could help Puerto Rico immensely until they are able to hire forensic anthropologists.”
With the Mercyhurst team now back on campus, Dunn, who teaches Human Skeletal Biology II, said the experiences will be useful in providing examples for their students.
“The experience we had in the past week is especially informative of what is expected of a forensic anthropologist and how different strategies are needed to approach cases in different contexts,” Ost said.
For Dirkmaat, who has been in the field for more than 30 years, this trip will only add to his arsenal of experiences to share with students.
Beyond the educational opportunity, this trip served as an application of the Mercyhurst University Mission Statement.
“We were socially merciful, as we were able to help others in need. We were globally responsible, as we were able to help a territory of the U.S. and assist when their own resources were so low after the last year,” Dunn said. “Overall, we were able to show, especially in the case of Andrea and me, that our education from Mercyhurst University enabled us to have the skills to assist with such a mission and to help those in need.”
Though the team does not have any immediate plans to go on another trip, they remain “on call” should another disaster occur.