Months After Katrina, Still Pushing to Find the Missing

As many as 5,000 people remain missing in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Workers at the Find Family National Call Center in Louisiana's capital of Baton Rouge are struggling to reunite people with missing loved ones. The number to call: (866) 326-9393.

Copyright © 2005 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.

Hurricanes Katrina and Rita battered the Gulf Coast back in August and September, but there are still people looking for relatives and friends who lived along the Gulf Coast when the hurricanes struck. The national Family Call Center in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, is the place where many people turn for help. NPR's Cheryl Corley has this report from the center.

CHERYL CORLEY reporting:

On a table near the entrance of the call center, there's some religious material, Bibles and pamphlets that say `When you lose it all, God still cares.' This is a place where people come to either locate a missing family member or begin the process of trying to identify a relative who has died.

BARBARA(ph): Hurricane Find Family Call Center. This is Barbara. May I have your name, please?

CORLEY: Most of the time, people just call in. It's a toll-free number which I'll tell you now and repeat later. It's 1 (866) 326-9393.

BARBARA: Will you spell your last name for me?

CORLEY: The center has received more than 10,000 calls. Callers provide confidential information--the missing person's name, date of birth, any old addresses, medical histories. Workers call it a VIP, or victim identity package, which goes into a database. Cheryl Westmoreland is one of the workers who sits at a table full of laptops and computers and searches other databases in an effort to find the missing person or someone who knows them.

Ms. CHERYL WESTMORELAND (Worker): We've found a bunch. Called one last week and she was looking for her mother. I got some more information from her and made a few more calls and found the mom, and I called back to tell her the information and gave her the number. She called and it was her mom. She called me back about 30 minutes later crying. `It's her, it's her.' It's very rewarding. I guess it's what keeps us going.

CORLEY: When the workers do make a find, they have a little celebration.

(Soundbite of bell ringing; cheering and applause)

Ms. WESTMORELAND: We had a lot of nurses working up here and they thought we needed something to let everybody know we found somebody. So we found that little bell, and now every time it rings, everybody applauds. So it's always a happy day when the bell rings.

CORLEY: Workers know it's more difficult to find people now. Many initially in shelters have scattered across the country and may be in private homes. Of course not everyone turns up alive. In Louisiana, for instance, there are hundreds of bodies at the temporary morgue outside of Baton Rouge. In an effort to identify them, volunteers at the call center collect DNA samples, they search for dental records, and collect family photos. Dr. Louis Cataldie, the state's medical director, says they compare those photos with pictures taken of victims at the morgue.

Dr. LOUIS CATALDIE (State Medical Director, Louisiana): Let me just show you that--this is just a typical situation. I'm not going to show you the individual, obviously, because of confidentiality. But this is what we have in the morgue, a very distinctive two teeth here and a very distinctive cap here. And with these two smiles, I'm able tell you beyond the shadow of a doubt that this person is this person. So just from this smile, even though I don't have any dental records, I've made a match. Isn't that wonderful?

CORLEY: Workers put numbers on a board. More than 5,000 cases resolved so far. That leaves another 5,000 missing. The people working here urge relatives to call back if they have new information and especially if they've found people on their own so they can be taken off the missing persons list.

(Soundbite of bell ringing; laughter and applause)

Ms. WESTMORELAND: Got another one.

CORLEY: The number to call is 1 (866) 326-9393. Cheryl Corley, NPR News, Baton Rouge.

BRAND: DAY TO DAY returns in a moment. I'm Madeleine Brand.

Copyright © 2005 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.