With DNA matches necessary, identifying bodies could take months

Knight Ridder NewspapersSeptember 14, 2005 

BATON ROUGE, La.—As the body count from Hurricane Katrina climbed to 474 in Louisiana on Wednesday, the state's top medical official said about half of the bodies gathered so far may require DNA matches with relatives to be identified.

Authorities are attempting to identify bodies that have been in rancid water or broiling attics for more than a week. So pathologists are painstakingly extracting DNA from every victim in the hope of matching it with a relative in a distant shelter, or with DNA gleaned from a personal item.

"DNA is a great tool," said Louis Cataldie, medical director for the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals. "But it's also a tool of almost last resort, because it takes so long. They say, `Bring us a hairbrush? My God, the hairbrush is 10 feet under water.'"

Attempts to count the dead have been riddled with confusion. Don Moreau, spokesman with the East Baton Rouge Coroner's office, said Wednesday that he was instructed by a state worker to include all displaced residents who've died in his parish, about 80 miles northwest of New Orleans.

Using that definition, he said, his office's latest figures include 48 storm-related deaths, including a 19-year-old evacuee shot to death outside a Baton Rouge house on Sept. 4—almost a week after the hurricane—and a 90-year-old hospice patient who died of breast cancer on Tuesday. The state still had East Baton Rouge parish's death toll from the hurricane at 39, but Moreau said he considered only two of the deaths storm-related.

The uncertainty over counting Katrina victims raises more questions about a death count and expectations that have fluctuated wildly, from New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin's early remark that 10,000 may have died to more recent estimates that are far lower.

Cataldie said the scale of the disaster has raised so many more pressing issues that it was too early to worry about the numbers.

"People keep asking me about numbers, numbers, numbers," he said. "I can tell you how many we've logged in" at the morgue. "But we've got to clarify who's who and what's what. If I say 500 people (are dead), that doesn't mean I have 500 hurricane-related deaths. That's why I'm resisting this number thing. That's not what it's about."

Trying to identify and count the dead could take months or years.

Much of the work is being done in St. Gabriel, La., about 20 miles southeast of Baton Rouge, where a warehouse has become the headquarters for the Disaster Mortuary Operations Response Team, a branch of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Warehouse owner Tom Hickman said FEMA indicated that it will need to lease the space for two to nine months.

Inside are 150 physicians, forensic experts and support personnel, about four times the number typically needed in natural disasters. The morgue is equipped to process 140 bodies a day.

Bodies move through stations like an assembly line as technicians check for fingerprints, dental records, DNA and other forms of identification. DNA samples are taken from all remains and turned over to the Louisiana state crime lab, which is compiling a DNA database.

"Putting all that stuff together is when you can pretty well identify someone," said Frank Minyard, the Orleans Parish coroner, who has set up shop in the warehouse and is sleeping in a nearby trailer. "If you have nothing else, you have DNA. But then you've got to find the family and check their DNA. You've got to get (cheek) swabs to see if they match, because a lot of these people (the deceased)—actually, most of them—are not recognizable."

Determining causes of death on all the bodies may be impossible to note on death certificates, he said. "We're calling that `Hurricane Katrina death.'"

Authorities have set up a toll-free number (866-326-9393) staffed by volunteers for families seeking information on missing loved ones. Callers are asked about surgeries, tattoos, scars or birthmarks, then asked if they're willing to provide samples of DNA, said Gary Daugherty, a family assistance specialist.

Some people may be reluctant to submit DNA because it clouds their hopes of finding loved ones alive.

"I ain't giving up," said James Bailey, a New Orleans resident whose girlfriend and 8-year-old son are missing. He was working at a hospital when the hurricane hit and has even traveled to the Houston Astrodome to find them, but he has yet to submit a DNA sample. "I know they've got to be alive," he said by phone from Houston.

Glen Calhoun, a spokesman for the International Association for Identification, a group for forensic specialists and a fingerprint expert with the Miami-Dade police department in Florida, said the process of identifying Katrina victims defies comparison.

"As each day goes by, and bodies are in the water, it's less likely you can get good fingerprints," he said. "My guess is there will be a lot of people they won't be able to identify."

Even the funerals, when they begin, will be vastly different than New Orleans' open casket tradition.

Gene Walters, executive director of the Louisiana Funeral Directors Association, has advised funeral directors to offer families the option of keeping bodies in temporary crypts until New Orleans' cemeteries reopen, an idea that still seems far off.

"Your guess is as good as anybody's," Walters said. "How long will it take the city to dry out? Once it's dried out, how much damage will be left, even to the cemeteries? I tell them to stress to families that it could be next year."

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(Robbins and Boyd report for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondent Nicholas Spangler of the Miami Herald contributed to this report from St. Gabriel.)

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20050913 KATRINA morgue

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