Months After Katrina, Still Pushing to Find the Missing
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.
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