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Officials in a small Louisiana town establish a morgue for Hurricane Katrina victims

ST. GABRIEL, La.—Juanita Westly says she hasn't slept in two days, not since she learned that the trucks rolling through her neighborhood are either carrying the dead —or will be soon.

"All we hear is the trucks back and forth," she said. "It's real depressing."

Residents of this town of 5,200, between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, said the mayor and police chief went door-to-door last week to tell them that a large warehouse near town hall will be used as a temporary morgue for the hundreds, if not thousands, who fell victim to Hurricane Katrina.

"I can't complain," Westly said. "It's a humanitarian effort. It's not about me or where I live. It's about protecting those bodies and making sure they are given a proper burial."

On Sunday, many residents stood outside their modest homes and watched as a continuous stream of dump trucks, refrigeration trucks and 18-wheelers drove onto the secure site. Some truckers backed their rigs into the warehouse, while others offloaded equipment in an area beside the warehouse where a parking lot is being paved to accommodate all of the vehicles.

Two large blue tents were erected on the site, while officials—many wearing green DMORT shirts, for the federal Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Team— congregated under the awnings of town hall or walked the site.

St. Gabriel Police Chief Kevin Ambeau wouldn't comment on whether victims are already at the site or if federal officials have started the identification process. He said federal officials will release that information at a later date.

Most of the business that used to take place in the town hall will move to the city's civic building. Ambeau said he didn't know how long the temporary morgue would be there, but he expected the town to be a gracious host for as long as needed.

"We are a small town, but we have a lot of big hearts," Ambeau said.

Darlene Brown, who lives across the street from the morgue and has been watching the operation unfold, said she has received calls from friends who are concerned about health issues that come with a depository of bodies, but she isn't worried.

"They have to put it somewhere," Brown said. "I know it is going to be an inconvenience, but they have got to start identifying them, so they can put them to rest."

Paula Chong, who's lived in St. Gabriel for 28 years and still hasn't heard from some loved ones living in the storm's path, said she will do whatever it takes to make the process easier on her community and emergency officials.

"I may not be able to fingerprint, photograph or look for a body tattoo, but I would volunteer to help with data entry or compile files," Chong said. "Let's do what we have to do as people.

"I am a Christian. I have compassion for the dead as well as the living. I may have some of my family in there."

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

GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20050904 KATRINA MORGUE

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