Teams Set to Retrieve Bodies from Flooded City

A week after Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, the focus turns to collecting the dead. Disaster officials in New Orleans hope to begin to send out teams to retrieve bodies. They have divided the city into a grid, and recovered bodies will be sent to a Federal Emergency Management Agency morgue in a warehouse in the small town of Saint Gabriel, just outside Baton Rouge.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

A week after Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast, many evacuees from around New Orleans spent the day trying to get back into the city to find out what was left of their homes. Engineers are preparing to start pumping water from flooded areas. It will take weeks or months to pump the water out. Up until now, much of the focus has been on search and rescue. Dead bodies often have been left behind to be retrieved later. But as NPR's John Ydstie reports from Baton Rouge, the grim task of collecting the dead is now beginning in earnest.

JOHN YDSTIE reporting:

According to Dr. Louis Cataldie, medical incident commander for the Katrina disaster, search teams will divide the city of New Orleans into grids and search house to house in an organized effort to retrieve bodies.

Dr. LOUIS CATALDIE (Medical Incident Commander for Katrina Disaster): Well, the effort to collect bodies has always been there, but a concerted effort to go out and seek and, you know, and go into the waters, at this point in time, we are positioning, and we'll be ready, hopefully today, to start a formalized collection process, OK, with the utilization of all the resources that the federal government is bringing to us.

YDSTIE: Dr. Cataldie was speaking in a tan-colored corrugated steel warehouse in the small Louisiana town of St. Gabriel about 60 miles west of New Orleans. Just inside the door, a dozen stainless steel gurneys await the dead, and the floor is covered in plastic. FEMA has set up a makeshift morgue here at the end of a dusty gravel road. It will be staffed by forensics experts, funeral directors and DNA specialists like Corrine Stern of El Paso.

Ms. CORRINE STERN (DNA Specialist): Quickly, after the decedents come in and they go through the decontamination unit, they will be brought to admitting. They will be assigned a number, and they also will be assigned an escort that will remain with that individual throughout the whole process.

YDSTIE: Examiners will confirm that the victim's death was hurricane-related and not the result of foul play. But Cataldie says the spectrum of death attributed to the hurricane will be quite wide.

Dr. CATALDIE: Had the person with a frail cardiac problem not been placed on a bus for X amount of hours, they would have survived, or had a person with renal problems gotten dialysis, they would have survived.

YDSTIE: Personal effects will be collected, dental exams conducted and DNA samples taken to identify the dead, many of whom will be unrecognizable after days submerged in the flood waters. The results will be sent to the state to be matched with records of people reported missing by relatives and friends. A number of officials have estimated storm-related deaths will ultimately be in the thousands, but Dr. Cataldie is the keeper of the official count which, as of this hour, is 59. He is determined to be methodical and accurate.

Dr. CATALDIE: You know, yesterday we talked about an indication that there might be a hundred bodies in St. Bernard on the dock. When I sent my recon over there, there were 15. So I don't want people being alarmed. I don't want inflated numbers. My God, it's horrible enough, you know, especially if it's your loved one.

YDSTIE: Preserving the dignity of the deceased will be paramount in this process, says Cataldie. That's one reason for locating the morgue in rural St. Gabriel. The site will be off limits even to next of kin. John Ydstie, NPR News, Baton Rouge.

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