Coroners, Troops Sift Through New Orleans

Exterior shot of Memorial Medical Center in New Orleans i i

At Memorial Medical Center in New Orleans, 45 bodies were found days after the city was flooded. An investigation is under way to determine whether hospital officials did anything wrong. Jeff Brady, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Jeff Brady, NPR
Exterior shot of Memorial Medical Center in New Orleans

At Memorial Medical Center in New Orleans, 45 bodies were found days after the city was flooded. An investigation is under way to determine whether hospital officials did anything wrong.

Jeff Brady, NPR

In New Orleans, the military works to find and recover dead bodies. With the initial search complete, a central clearinghouse is coordinating teams of coroners dispatched to recover the bodies. We hear from a coroner who went into Memorial Hospital, where 45 bodies were found.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

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

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

Today news that parts of New Orleans will reopen to businesses as early as this weekend.

Mayor RAY NAGIN (New Orleans): It's a good day in New Orleans. The sun is shining. We're bringing New Orleans back, and this is our first step, where we're opening up this city, and almost 200,000 residents will be able to come back.

SIEGEL: Mayor Ray Nagin laid out by ZIP code dry areas of the city where people would be allowed to return: the French Quarter, Algiers, the central business district and Uptown. People with proof that they work in these areas can come back on Saturday and Sunday, but, the mayor says, there will be a dusk-to-dawn curfew. And then on Monday people will be allowed to return to their homes in Algiers. Other neighborhoods will follow over the next couple of weeks.

Mayor NAGIN: These areas, these ZIP codes that are outlined for you represent 182,000 people in the city of New Orleans. The city of New Orleans, starting on Monday, starting this weekend, will start to breathe again.

BLOCK: Over the next three to six months Mayor Nagin says he expects about half the city's population, some 250,000 people, to come back. While the mayor offered that word today, the count of people who died as a result of Hurricane Katrina neared 800; 558 of those from Louisiana. And those numbers are still expected to climb.

Officials in the city say they've completed an initial search of flooded areas, but now they're going back for a much more thorough inspection. NPR's Jeff Brady reports on the grim task of recovery and identification.

JEFF BRADY reporting:

Louis Cataldie is with the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals and a former parish coroner. At a news conference Wednesday, he shouldered the blame for the state's poor performance.

(Soundbite of Wednesday news conference)

Mr. LOUIS CATALDIE (Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals): Are we doing a good enough job? No. No. As long as there's one body floating in that water, we're not doing a good enough job. And the bottom line is that's my responsibility.

BRADY: Cataldie says once the enormity of the disaster became clear, he and other coroners did the best they could.

(Soundbite of Wednesday news conference)

Mr. CATALDIE: When I was in the Superdome doing triage, we had to establish an area actually to the left of the triage site for folks who did not make it and even folks who were expected not to make it. And there was no processing place at that time--we didn't have body bags at the time--except to cover the people respectfully. And we got the body bags brought in by one of the ambulances, and we began to utilize those. It was not a pleasant experience.

BRADY: Cataldie says there was no organization until the federal government and the military arrived. Coast Guard Vice Admiral Thad Allen is the director of FEMA operations for Hurricane Katrina.

Vice Admiral THAD ALLEN (US Coast Guard): The first phase is what we call a hasty search. And that was an attempt to get through the entire area block by block and see if there was any chance that people would want to come out, or we might have a search-and-rescue case where we want to assist somebody. We have had 100 percent hasty search of all flooded areas.

BRADY: Even though crews have been just about everywhere in the city, they haven't searched every room in every building. That will be an immense task. Allen says teams are now going back to conduct a more thorough search, and then they'll go back a third time. And no one will speculate on how long it will take to reach a final body count. When a body is located, a retrieval team is sent in.

Vice Adm. ALLEN: A retrieval team consists of four individuals and a chaplain. And when the retrieval team arrives on scene, the first thing that happens is an ecumenical prayer is rendered by the chaplain.

BRADY: Allen says the condition of the remains and their surroundings is documented. That could help identify who the person was.

Vice Adm. ALLEN: The deceased is then carried to a transfer vehicle and then brought to a refrigerated vehicle and then taken, with dignity and respect, under a police escort to the Disaster Portable Morgue Unit. That is located at St. Gabriel, and the vehicles pause before entering the morgue and a prayer is said by the chaplain on duty.

BRADY: At the morgue dental X-rays and photographs are taken, along with fingerprints and a DNA sample. A decision is made whether to conduct an autopsy. Finally, there's a ceremonial washing of the body that Allen says complies with requirements of the Christian, Jewish and Muslim faiths.

Retrieval teams are still trying to catch up with all the reports of bodies filed in the past. All the while authorities are receiving more reports from search crews. The official tally of the dead only includes bodies that have been recovered at the morgue. As one out-of-state coroner put it, there's a lesson to be learned for all local governments from New Orleans' experience: The feds will arrive to help, but it may take a few days. They need to be ready to do the work themselves in the meantime. Jeff Brady, NPR News, New Orleans.

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