At Center for Katrina's Missing, a Sense of Closure

Louisiana medical examiner Louis Cataldie

Louisiana medical examiner Louis Cataldie holds a sheet used for fingerprinting Hurricane Katrina victims in this October 2005 file photo. More than 900 bodies were recovered. Cataldie and his staff are still trying to identify 23 of them. Chris Graythen/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Chris Graythen/Getty Images
Workers at the Louisiana Family Assistance Center in Baton Rouge wrap things up.

Workers at the Louisiana Family Assistance Center in Baton Rouge wrap things up. The center closed this week, after helping thousands of families locate missing persons displaced by Katrina. Nearly 11,000 people on their missing list were found alive. Cheryl Corley, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Cheryl Corley, NPR

When the Louisiana Family Assistance Center in Baton Rouge shut down this week, it closed the chapter on a massive effort by federal, state and local officials to find people missing and scattered by Hurricane Katrina.

It was a governmental entity that worked: It cleared the vast majority of its cases, bringing good news to thousands of families — and finality to hundreds more as it confirmed the deaths and identities of victims.

Throughout the months of its operation, the sound of a ringing bell at the center brought a measure of hope to an overwhelming task: When it rang, it meant one of the more than 13,000 people on the center's missing list had been located.

Nearly 11,000 people on the list were found alive, nearly 900 confirmed as victims, and about 1,000 cases were referred to other jurisdictions. Louis Cataldie, the state's medical director, says the center resolved 99 percent of the cases on the missing list. But he still wasn't satisfied:

"If it's my mother, I want you to find my momma — that's the way we are here," Cataldie says.

At the center's closing, 135 names remained on the missing persons list. Deputy Director Henry Yennie says those cases will be hard to resolve: "I think the problem is we just don't have data on these were calls that were taken very early on — [not much] information other than a name."

And the people who provided the name, says Yennie, have since moved, making it difficult to locate them.

Finding the missing was half of the Family Assistance Center's mission. The other was identifying the dead. More than 900 bodies were recovered in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Dr. Cataldie and his staff are still trying to identify 23 of them. The New Orleans coroner has the remains of 50 nameless individuals, and firefighters and cadaver dogs have made recent recoveries of skeletal remains in the city.

Local authorities now in charge of the hurricane investigations have made some progress. Cataldie says officials in Jefferson Parish have identified three of the 135 people left on the center's missing list. Even so, Cataldie says, as the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina approaches, he expects more people will come forward with the names of missing relatives and friends.

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