Search for Missing Katrina Victims Continues

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The "debris line" includes this Elmo doll

The "debris line" extending more than a mile from hurricane-ravaged home sites in Waveland, Miss., includes this Elmo doll. Howard Berkes, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Howard Berkes, NPR

Seven weeks after Hurricane Katrina, workers are still finding bodies as they sift through the wreckage. Howard Berkes joined searchers in Waveland, Miss., as they attempt to find the remains of those missing.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Seven weeks after Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, search teams continue to find bodies in the rubble. Fifty people are missing in Mississippi, where NPR's Howard Berkes joined searchers this week as they used remnants of the lives of the missing to try to find their remains.

HOWARD BERKES reporting:

Snakes and alligators roam marshes and woods outside Waveland, Mississippi, where four men are searching for missing victims of Hurricane Katrina.

Mr. DEREK PARTRIDGE(ph) (Meridian, Mississippi, Fire Department): We got two missing now. We found one yesterday and we got two missing now. We got the dog out searching. She hasn't hit on anything yet, and we got--people going to be in a boat this afternoon, then we're going to be over here walking through.

BERKES: Derek Partridge is with the fire department in Meridian, and he leads this body recovery team which found the remains of a woman its first day out this week.

Mr. PARTRIDGE: When we found her, it was just great, you know?

BERKES: It sounds terrible to find...

Mr. PARTRIDGE: Yeah.

BERKES: ...a body. But...

Mr. PARTRIDGE: It is.

BERKES: So when you say it's great, what is great about it?

Mr. PARTRIDGE: Well, it's great knowing that--if that was my mother or grandmother or whatever, then I've got that peace, you know? And that's some...

Unidentified Man: ...(Unintelligible).

Mr. PARTRIDGE: And that's something that this team has done. We've give that family peace, and we got two more. We're going to work hard as a team and find those two.

(Soundbite of footsteps)

BERKES: The woman found in these woods Monday was quickly identified, and her family was notified, though she has not been named publicly. The searchers knew important details, like the location and style of her home and the fact she had a yard full of dog kennels.

Mr. PARTRIDGE: Actually, that's how we found her because we started digging up the kennels. We found six kennels and we just kind of went from there and tracked it to this point.

BERKES: The kennels form a broken line a mile long, visible in aerial photographs. On the ground, the team relied on other remnants of the woman's life.

Mr. PARTRIDGE: And what we're seeing out here, we call it a debris line. It's where all the water washed up debris, the houses and stuff like that. What we do is find what color her house was, did it have a green door, have a red door? Did it have blue shutters? We start at that line and we come out into the debris line and we find the house, the green shutters or whatever, and we just work in that area until we come up with something.

BERKES: The debris line is hard to decipher on the ground because of thick brush tangled with wreckage. Imagine a forest of rooftops, windows, tattered clothing and soggy mattresses. A lot of the debris hangs from branches as much as 30 feet high, so searchers rely on another sense to find the lost lives they seek.

Mr. PARTRIDGE: Mainly, what we're doing is going by smell, you know. If we smell something then we all get together and just kind of dig around to see what we can come up with. That's how we found the lady yesterday.

BERKES: Sometimes a search dog is available, with a powerful and trained sense of smell. Sometimes the smell is right but the find isn't. The remains of a dog led searcher Tommy Malone(ph) to a figure in the brush; a doll, it turned out, the size of a toddler.

Mr. TOMMY MALONE (Searcher): I've got a seven-year-old boy. Right back here, if you'll notice, there's a little guitar. I bought that boy of mine a guitar, so I was at the same time just thinking about him. And about the time I walked up I saw that--what I thought was a child there. It's not a good feeling to think that you've walked up on the body of somebody's child.

BERKES: Your...

Mr. MALONE: You run on all kind of emotions. I mean, still think about that loss.

BERKES: There are many reminders of loss--a faded and dusty Talking Elmo doll still smiling, a framed photograph hanging from a limb of a happy family in a shady yard.

Mr. PARTRIDGE: Like we found a chest yesterday with two American flags in it, Japanese money, medals, old letters and stuff that we're going to look--try to notify the family. That makes our day. That makes our mission worth coming for.

(Soundbite of radio transmission)

Unidentified Man: And anything over on ...(unintelligible).

BERKES: We're interrupted by the cackle of a radio and then a cell phone call, and suddenly the team shifts gears.

Mr. PARTRIDGE: They found another body over in--we got to head over there. Construction company found it in the--some debris.

BERKES: Faces turn somber as the crew heads out for a street busy with heavy machinery scooping up debris and dumping it into trucks. Behind a fence, thick brush hides human remains. A white plastic bag is unrolled and carried into the brush like a blanket. When it's lifted out, it's bulky. The bag is set gently on a gurney, then slipped into a white van. Little is said as the van drives away.

(Soundbite of vehicle)

BERKES: The remains of about 230 Katrina victims have been recovered in Mississippi so far; 200 have yet to be identified.

Howard Berkes, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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