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Louisiana governor blasts FEMA over recovery of bodies

BATON ROUGE, La.—Blasting federal officials for a "lack of urgency and lack of respect," Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco said Tuesday that the state would seize control of the task of recovering the bodies of Hurricane Katrina victims.

"In death, as in life, our people deserve more respect than they have received," Blanco told reporters before convening a cabinet meeting.

She accused the Federal Emergency Management Agency of causing delays because the agency had failed to sign a contract with the firm hired to collect corpses and was not providing enough support for the firm's crews.

FEMA spokesman David Passey responded that body recovery has always been the state's job, and federal authorities were in charge of body identification. "I can't explain the disconnect," he said.

The latest round of finger-pointing came over a particularly sensitive issue, as floodwaters continued to recede in New Orleans, opening access to some of the areas hardest-hit by the storm.

As recently as Monday afternoon, in the Lower 9th Ward of New Orleans, a woman's corpse was hung up on a cyclone fence, her arms outstretched as if she had been caught running from something. Another body lay face down in the muck in a yard a couple of blocks away.

Blanco said she signed a state contract with Kenyon International Services, an expert body-recovery firm, after it threatened to pull out of the state because it did not have a formal contract with FEMA.

Kenyon crews have been on the ground since last week, when FEMA brought the firm in under a verbal agreement to assist in recovery efforts, Passey said. The agency, he added, offered the company a contract.

"Kenyon chose for their own reasons not to sign a contract," Passey said. He said the federal government's disaster-mortuary teams specialize in identifying bodies through fingerprinting, photography, personal effects, digital dental X-rays and DNA.

Kenyon officials did not return phone calls seeking comment.

Kenyon technicians come in after search-and-rescue teams and military personnel identify locations of bodies. Kenyon workers then transport the bodies to FEMA's mortuary teams in the town of St. Gabriel, where the agency has established a makeshift morgue.

Further complicating the body recovery, Passey said, is the desire of some parishes to recover bodies in their own jurisdictions.

"That's their prerogative," he said. "We're here to support the state and the local government."

New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin said that door-to-door searches for bodies should be complete by the end of the week.

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(Knight Ridder correspondents Chris Adams, Susannah A. Nesmith and Erika Bolstad contributed to this report.)

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

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