DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:
On the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina later this month, two silver caskets will be lowered into Mississippi soil. They will contain the remains of two men, the last unidentified storm victims in that state.
In Baton Rouge, Louisiana this week, there was closure of another kind. The Louisiana Family Assistance Center closed its doors. It was a government entity that worked. Federal, state and local officials worked together to find people missing and scattered by Hurricane Katrina. NPR's Cheryl Corley reports.
CHERYL CORLEY reporting:
Throughout the months of its operation, the sound of a ringing bell at the Louisiana Family Assistance Center brought a measure of hope to an overwhelming task.
(Soundbite of ringing bell and applause)
CORLEY: When the bell rang, it was a victory. 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 isn't satisfied.
Dr. LOUIS CATALDIE (Florida State Medical Director): There's a lot of people here doing a lot of good work. This has become an avocation, not a job. But the bottom line is if you've still got somebody out there missing that hasn't been found, the mission's not complete. If it's my mother, I want you to find my mama. I want to know the answer and, you know, that's the way we are here.
CORLEY: At the center's closing, 135 names remained on the missing person's list, and Deputy Director Henry Yennie says those cases will be hard to resolve.
Mr. HENRY YENNIE (Deputy Director, Louisiana Family Assistance Center): I think the problem is we just don't have data. These were calls, I believe, that were taken very early on. We had little or no information about the victim other than maybe a name.
CORLEY: 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 to identify 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 even made recent recoveries of skeletal remains in the city.
Dr. CATALDIE: Ms. Chris, is the horn available?
Ms. CHRISTINE ROBERTS(ph) (Retired Nurse): Let me check my bag, but I believe I already (unintelligible).
CORLEY: The horn was a bicycle horn. Its sound often reverberated through the assistance center in addition to the victory bell. When the Family Affairs Unit blew the horn, it meant the remains of hurricane victims who had been positively identified could finally be released to grieving families and funeral homes. Christine Roberts, a retired nurse from Pennsylvania, came up with the idea. She says for her and the others who notified families about positive IDs and helped them through their grief, the job became a calling.
Ms. ROBERTS: I can't say that I haven't shed my share of tears with people. Just last Friday, I had to notify a family about a little boy that was identified. And if you can feel that in your heart, their loss, I think that's the most important thing; you have to be able to empathize with what they're going through and listen to what they have to say and what they need from you.
CORLEY: Local authorities are now in charge of the hurricane investigations, and there has been some progress. Louis Cataldie says officials in Louisiana's Jefferson Parrish have identified three of the 135 on the center's missing list. Even so, Cataldie says as the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina approaches, he expects there may be new names to add to the list of missing relatives and friends.
Dr. CATALDIE: Some people have been very reluctant to call us because they would think at this late in the game if they call us it's admitting that the person is dead. And part of the avoidance - which one of the surveys we just did shows 30 percent of our people are victims or in avoidance - part of the avoidance is not to call. But after giving it a year, quote-unquote, that magical anniversary date, I anticipate that there might be people who come forth at that point in time with missing individuals also.
CORLEY: But during the closing ceremony of the Louisiana Family Assistance Center, it was time for the workers who remained to look back and to celebrate what had been accomplished. They lined up to ring the victory bell for a last time...
(Soundbite of ringing bell)
CORLEY: ...in recognition of those who had survived the turmoil of Hurricane Katrina and been found alive.
Cheryl Corley, NPR News.
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