Costs, Complexity Slow Identification of Katrina Dead

Nearly three months after Hurricane Katrina hit Louisiana, the death toll continues to rise, and hundreds of bodies remain unidentified and unclaimed amid a slow and expensive process. Officials hope soon to be able to use DNA analysis to identify remains in the temporary morgue.

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Nearly three months after Hurricane Katrina ripped through Louisiana, the number of deaths continues to rise. Hundreds of bodies remain nameless and unclaimed in a temporary morgue. Officials hope to soon use DNA samples, which have been stored but not analyzed to help identify more of the dead. NPR's Cheryl Corley reports.

CHERYL CORLEY reporting:

The grim task of collecting the remains of any Hurricane Katrina victims missed during earlier searches is now a local responsibility in Louisiana. Frank Minyard, the coroner for New Orleans, says in the past week seven more bodies were recovered.

Mr. FRANK MINYARD (New Orleans Coroner): What happens--the people go back in their homes in the Lower Ninth Ward, and they find their loved one up in the attic or under the house or something. And they've been laying there all this time, and so there's a lot of decomposition--all drownings.

CORLEY: The Louisiana death toll stands at more than 1,000. Most of the victims are from the New Orleans area. It's at the temporary morgue in St. Gabriel, Louisiana, not far from Baton Rouge, where the coroner and other medical experts try to sort out the identities of the dead. Family members are not allowed inside. Bright orange barriers and security guards block the morgue's entrance. Just inside, pursers wait to take coffins and body bags to funeral homes. The state's medical director, Dr. Louis Cataldie, thumbs through a notebook as he sits at a table in the area reserved for chaplains to talk to family members who've been turned away from the morgue.

Dr. LOUIS CATALDIE (Medical Director, Louisiana): We've made so far today...

(Soundbite of pages being turned)

Dr. CATALDIE: This morning we made--one, two--nine IDs.

CORLEY: There are two main steps in the identification process. Families provide information, like a person's medical history, to workers at a family assistance call-in center, who enter the details in a database. At the morgue, workers use that information as well as medical data, X-rays, fingerprints, serial numbers from artificial hips or knees and pacemakers to identify the dead. There's also a victim's teeth and dental records. If those records don't exist, Cataldie says relatives are asked to bring in any photos they may have.

Dr. CATALDIE: So if I don't have dental records, I can always use a smile. For instance, if I have one person who has only one tooth in their head, if you would, and it's in the lower back jaw and I--all family members agree to this and know this and that's the only person I have out of 800 bodies, I can pretty much say, `Yes, that's one identifier.'

CORLEY: More than half of the nearly 900 bodies that have come through the St. Gabriel morgue have been identified, but more than 300 remain nameless. The identified include people of all races: A little less than half are black; about 41 percent are white; slightly more than half are male; a significant number are elderly.

Ms. NANCY ELLEBY(ph): And they need to get some pictures that I keep around the house of Mom, you know, little different snapshots.

CORLEY: Nancy Elleby's photos of her mother, Clementine, are neatly arranged on a living room table. Just a month shy of her 80th birthday, Clementine Elleby(ph) died in the arms of another daughter at the New Orleans Convention Center, where she and thousands were stranded in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. During the evacuation Clementine Elleby's body had to be left behind, but the family attached a note which included her name and the names of her nine children and their phone numbers. Nancy Elleby says finding her mother again was an agonizing process.

Ms. ELLEBY: We called. I would call. My sisters would call. We contacted the White House, we contacted our congressman, we contacted the mayor's office. We contacted just anyone we could think of. It was my daily job. Couldn't sleep because we felt like, `She's out there somewhere, and we have to find her.'

CORLEY: Elleby and a sister pleaded for answers last month as they protested outside of the St. Gabriel morgue on their mother's birthday. They told Dr. Cataldie that Clementine Elleby had a pacemaker. Nancy Elleby says six weeks after her mother's death, the family was notified that Clementine Elleby had been identified and was at the morgue.

Ms. ELLEBY: I know she's at peace now. I know she can rest in peace. We know where she is now. There's still some answers we want. We never found out: When was she picked up? Who picked her up? Where was she kept? How was--there's so many unanswered questions. I still don't understand how the system could be so messed up.

CORLEY: The sheer multitude of victims initially overwhelmed the Orleans Parish Coroner's Office, which had few workers and little resources as a result of the storm. Dr. Cataldie says many problems have been resolved, but he agrees the ID process is frustratingly slow. The latest complication, a bureaucratic tangle over who should pay for the analysis of DNA samples, seems to have been resolved with the federal government promising to pick up the tab. Dr. Cataldie says such testing may be the only hope for identifying some of the badly decomposed bodies.

Dr. CATALDIE: I have 140 individuals in here right now; I have no identifying marks as to who they are. I have no clue, none. We have 170 folks in here right now who we have a tentative lead. If I think I've got your mom in there, heaven forbid, I can say, `OK, give me your DNA. We can match against all these individuals.' But I need that now. I need that now.

CORLEY: Cataldie says the test may help ease the minds of family members still looking for loved ones in Louisiana. But the state's medical director says not everyone lost during the storm will be identified. Dr. Cataldie says he believes Hurricane Katrina swept some of its victims into the Gulf of Mexico. Cheryl Corley, NPR News, New Orleans.

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