Genetics IDs Katrina Victims; Some Were Long Missing

The bodies of scores of victims of Hurricane Katrina are in morgues along the Gulf Coast, awaiting identification. Cutting-edge genetics that are being used to help identify the dead are turning up dozens of "missing" people along the way.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

It's been more than eight months since Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans and there are still bodies that have not yet been identified. In Baton Rouge, a genetics team is working to track down the families who've reported missing relatives. The team's aim--to collect DNA samples and compare them to DNA from the unidentified bodies.

As NPR's Christopher Joyce found out, the job has highs as well as lows. Investigators are often finding people reported missing who are actually alive and well.

CHRISTOPHER JOYCE: The Family Assistance Center is a bunch of metal tables, computers, and telephones in what used to be a sporting goods store in a tacky strip mall. Just about everybody is holding a phone.

JENNIFER GAM: Hi, my name is Jennifer, I'm calling from the Louisiana Family Assistance Center. I am looking for an individual who reported a family member missing after Hurricane Katrina. We need to get some more family history information from her. Great, thank you.

JOYCE: Across one wall is a quotation from William Gladstone, "Show me the manner in which a nation cares for its dead and I will measure with mathematical exactness the tender mercies of its people."

AMANDA SOZER: My name is Amanda Sozer, and I am the project manager for the DNA identification effort here for Hurricane Katrina. We have about 30 plus people here to find families to identify the relatives for DNA testing.

JOYCE: The volunteers are trained in genetics. Here's what they are doing. They have two boxes of puzzle pieces. One box is small. It's the unidentified bodies from Katrina. They don't know the names of these people, but they have DNA from their bones. The other box has a lot more pieces, hundreds of families who have reported a relative who's missing and still unaccounted for.

What this team is trying to do is to see whether the DNA from any of the bodies matches DNA taken from any of the families. A match means a family finally knows what happened to a loved one. Amanda Sozer says the problem is the volunteers have to find those families, brothers, aunts, sisters, fathers, daughters, and take a swab of cells from the inside of their cheeks.

SOZER: This is much more complex than it sounds because these families are located all over the United States, all over the world and they move. They may be in a hotel in Texas and then after they are out of that hotel, they may move to Georgia and then they may move to Florida and this is the group that's trying to track them down to get those samples.

GAM: This is Jennifer Gam, I'm calling from Louisiana Family Assistance Center. And you were listed as the person who called in a missing person and do you know her?

JOYCE: Some of these geneticists helped identify victims from the World Trade Center. Then technicians went to the homes of missing people and got DNA from a toothbrush or hairbrush and compared it to the human remains.

Tammy Pruet, the DNA manager for the Louisiana State Police, said that won't work here.

TAMMY PRUET: We had people in homes that were destroyed, and there are no personal effects like toothbrushes are hairbrushes that we can look at. We have had a couple, I believe three to date, where we've used personal effects. We had a family, a distant family member who came in, they had a letter, an old letter from someone reported missing who had licked the envelope, and we were able to make the identification from the envelope.

JOYCE: The saliva left on the stamp and envelope yielded DNA that matched the unidentified body.

Pruet says it took three months after the hurricane to finish the paperwork and find people with the right skills to start this project. Even now they have to send some DNA samples all the way to Sarajevo in Bosnia, where experts learned this kind of detective work after investigating mass graves from the Balkan war.

So far the Louisiana team has identified 126 bodies. Team member Laura Gun (ph) is a genetic technician with a company in Texas. She keeps coming back.

LAURA GUN: This is my fourth trip here. This is probably the most important thing I've ever worked on in my life and, you know, these people need to know where their family members are and although it's bad news for them to find that their loved one is dead, they need that news and we want to be able to provide that to them.

JOYCE: But far more often, the staff finds that people on their list are alive.

That's where the bell comes in. When an investigator locates a missing person who's alive, they ring a bell and cross that name off the list. George Riley is in charge of the counselors group.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL RINGING)

GEORGE RILEY: It's a very nice thing because it motivates people. It gives you a little bit of belief.

GAM: Hi, I am calling from the Family Assistance Center. My name is Jennifer, and we had a missing person's report. Yeah, it came in right after the hurricane, we're still working on some of those missing person's files. Have you heard from her? Okay, do you know where she's living? She's in Atlanta.

JOYCE: Jennifer Gam, a counselor from Cincinnati, just got lucky. She found the father of a young woman who was reported missing, and he says she's now in Atlanta.

GAM: She is alive and well.

JOYCE: You get to go ring the bell.

GAM: I get to go ring the bell, absolutely. I have to fill out my paperwork first.

JOYCE: The man on the phone explains that he has another daughter, though, she's six years old, who's still missing. He thinks she's with her mother somewhere. He hasn't seen her since they were at the Superdome in New Orleans. That puts Jennifer Gam on a new trail, but for the moment it's time to celebrate.

GAM: This will be my eighth time, so --

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL RINGING)

GAM: It is very satisfying.

JOYCE: Christopher Joyce, NPR News.

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