New Orleans Seeks Final Home for Nameless Victims Kevin U. Stephens Sr., director of the New Orleans Health Department, discusses with Michele Norris the city's efforts to obtain FEMA funding to build a mausoleum in New Orleans for the more than 200 unidentified victims of Hurricane Katrina.

New Orleans Seeks Final Home for Nameless Victims

New Orleans Seeks Final Home for Nameless Victims

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Kevin U. Stephens Sr., director of the New Orleans Health Department, discusses with Michele Norris the city's efforts to obtain FEMA funding to build a mausoleum in New Orleans for the more than 200 unidentified victims of Hurricane Katrina.

MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

More than five months after Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans, officials are still trying to figure out what to do with some of the dead. More than 200 bodies, all unidentified or unclaimed victims of the hurricane, are stored in a fleet of refrigerated trucks miles from the city. Federal and state officials had hoped to close the makeshift morgue by the end of this month and provide a proper burial. But there are many opinions on just what proper means.

Some officials, including Mayor Ray Nagin, said it simply is not right to bury New Orleanians outside of their home city. Others balked at the idea of burying the dead in wooden caskets. A mausoleum, they said, would allow families to recover bodies if identifications are eventually made. One person at the center of this debate is Dr. Kevin U. Stephens, Sr. He's the director of the city of New Orleans Health Department, and he joins us now. Dr. Stephens, thanks so much for being with us.

KEVIN U: And thank you for having me.

NORRIS: Now, after all this time, why are there still 200 bodies at that facility?

STEPHENS: Well, you know, the most important thing is, we needed to allocate time for people to identify the bodies. Unlike most disasters, in Katrina, a lot of our citizens and residents have been dispersed to over 44 states.

NORRIS: But you still have 200 bodies there. How many of those are unclaimed and how many are unidentified at this point?

STEPHENS: Approximately 150 of them have been unidentified, and approximately 50 have been unclaimed.

NORRIS: And just to make sure we understand the difference, unidentified meant that the body was in such condition that you're not able, even through dental records, to determine who the victim was.

STEPHENS: Well, I'm not sure if it's the condition of the body. It's just that it's hard for identification of the body in terms of DNA and other identification methods. We have to find a relative. We have to have a picture, you have to have some other form that can positively identify people.

NORRIS: Now, this has come to light now because the city had planned to close the morgue in St. Gabriel, which is just south of Baton Rouge, by the end of this month. Why this February deadline?

STEPHENS: Well, it's not imposed by the city. It was imposed more by FEMA. But, you know, I think the problem is, we really do need to, we need to go into recovery, and, you know, as long as we have these bodies sitting out there, if you will, in St. Gabriel, it's hard to bring closure to it.

NORRIS: Now, state and federal officials wanted to move those remaining bodies to a cemetery outside, far outside New Orleans, actually, in Carville, Louisiana. And that idea was met with quite a bit of protests. What were the objections?

STEPHENS: The primary objection, I think, is it's very difficult for citizens in the city to get to St. Gabriel. There are no regularly scheduled bus schedules. Number two, I think most citizens would prefer to have been buried in their homeland, so they can be with their families, at least if not with their families, in the areas where they lived and/or worked. It is our plan at this point to build a mausoleum. I think we really have to appropriately handle the burial of these bodies because that's, it's very important. It's critical.

NORRIS: How large are mausoleums usually? Are there mausoleums that are this large right now in the city of New Orleans?

STEPHENS: Oh, yeah. We have mausoleums that are 500 to 600 crypts. And we were looking at one that's approximately 252.

NORRIS: And for a city right now that is still facing significant financial challenges, how would the city pay for this?

STEPHENS: Well, one of the things we have done is we requested do a project worksheet for FEMA to cover most, if not all, of the cost associated with this. And we don't have the word yet if they will or how much they will. But, you know, we really think that this is very important to appropriately bury your citizens and deal with them with dignity and respect. And the mayor has said that if we need to, we will go out and raise the funds ourselves if we're forced to do that.

NORRIS: Well, Dr. Stephens, thanks so much for talking to us. All the best to you.

STEPHENS: Thank you very much.

NORRIS: Dr. Kevin U. Stephens, Sr. He's the director of the city of New Orleans Health Department.

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