Louisiana Town Becomes Temporary Morgue

As the rescue and evacuation effort in New Orleans winds down, teams are dividing the city into grids and beginning to go house to house in a concerted search for the dead. Once recovered, Katrina's victims will be transported to a morgue in a tiny Saint Gabriel, La.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

With the rescue and evacuation effort in New Orleans winding down, teams are dividing the city into grids and beginning to go house to house in a concerted search for the dead. As NPR's John Ydstie reports, once recovered, Katrina's victims will be transported to a morgue in a tiny Louisiana town.

JOHN YDSTIE reporting:

St. Garbiel lies along the Mississippi River, 60 miles west of New Orleans, just below Baton Rouge. Down a dusty gravel road at the edge of town, FEMA has turned a large steel warehouse into a temporary morgue. Dr. Louis Cataldie stands just inside the warehouse doorway at the spot where the bodies of the storm victims will be received. Beside him in neat rows are stainless steel gurneys. Cataldie is the medical incident commander for the Katrina disaster. He describes how the bodies will be treated as they arrive.

Dr. LOUIS CATALDIE (Medical Incident Commander): They probably assist the opening of the body bag, spraying down the body with whatever chemical and/or water, whatever we deem necessary, perhaps a chlorine mix, when we've been able to more specifically identify what's going on there. At these stations also will be our epidemiologist because we're very cognizant of the fact that there could be an outbreak of illness. So we're staying on top of that.

YDSTIE: More than 100 temporary FEMA employees called up for this disaster will handle the grim work. They are funeral directors, embalmers and forensic experts from around the country. Corinne Stern is a DNA specialist from El Paso.

Ms. CORINNE STERN (DNA Specialist): They will be assigned a number and they also will be assigned an escort that will remain with that individual throughout the whole process. From admitting, they will be brought to assessment. Assessment will be staffed with a forensic pathologist.

YDSTIE: The forensic expert will determine whether foul play was involved in the death, then other workers will go through personal effects, do dental exams, and take DNA samples in an effort to identify victims, many of whom will be unrecognizable after days submerged in the floodwaters. Information will then be sent to the state which will try to match it with the files of people reported missing by family and friends. Dr. David Senn, a forensic dental expert from San Antonio, is a veteran of the 9/11 and Columbia space shuttle recoveries, but one element of this catastrophe unnerves him.

Mr. DAVID SENN (Forensic Dental Expert): Every disaster has very special situations. New York was an incredible experience. The shuttle Columbia was an incredible experience. The thing that I look least forward to in this one is children. I don't like identifying children.

YDSTIE: The morgue has been set up in this quiet rural area to keep away the curious. George Grace is the mayor of St. Gabriel, a town of about 5,500 spread over 70 square miles.

Mr. Mayor, how are the people of St. Gabriel feeling about having this facility here as there've been hurricane...

Mayor GEORGE GRACE (St. Gabriel, Louisiana): We do not have 100 percent approval for this move. And I think most of it is based on the rumors that have circulated, the possibility of contamination and disease being spread.

YDSTIE: Mayor Grace is holding a meeting in the town tonight to try to ease the concern. St. Gabriel has a rich history. It was founded by the French Acadians from Nova Scotia in the 1700s, but it's seen its share of tragedy, too. Mayor Grace is descended from the Jamaican slaves brought here to work the plantations. In the 1920s, a leper colony was founded in the town. Dozens of those afflicted with the disease still live on the site. The town also hosts two prisons and a Job Corps center. Still, the mayor finds it fitting that the dead from New Orleans be brought here.

Mayor GRACE: St. Gabriel has a history of bringing people with a little hope and try to, you know, give them new beginnings. Now in this case, we are able to accommodate this component of this tragedy in hopes of giving solace to the families of these people and try to put this episode of our history behind us to move forward. So we are a city of hope.

YDSTIE: The St. Gabriel morgue will be able to handle up to 140 bodies a day. Officials fear the ultimate death toll may reach into the thousands. John Ydstie, NPR News, Baton Rouge.

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