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Loved ones grapple with confusion, red tape in search for missing

BAY ST. LOUIS, Miss.—The last words Terry Lucas heard her 77-year-old mother say were, "This is worse than Camille."

Then the phone went dead.

It was just after 8 a.m. on Aug. 29, and Hurricane Katrina's storm surge roared into Lucas' house near the beach in Bay St. Louis. In a smaller house next door, Lucas' parents, Gloria and Luke Benigno, 82, quickly drowned.

Authorities retrieved their bodies from the garage two days later. But Lucas spent the next three weeks trying to find where her parents' bodies ended up, at one point being told that they were listed as missing, not dead.

"I was furious. I told him we found them," Lucas said. "We saw them taken away. We just couldn't find out where they were."

Lucas' quest ended last week. But one month after Hurricane Katrina, hundreds of families in Mississippi and many more in Louisiana are still trying to learn what happened to loved ones who are missing and feared dead.

They confront federal, state and local authorities whose resources have been stretched to the limit. In some cases, the storm destroyed traditional means of identifying the dead. Lists, official and unofficial, of thousands of missing persons add to the confusion and fuel speculation that many more dead have yet to be found.

Victoria Cubero just wants to know: Is her close friend, Joey McNabb of New Orleans, OK?

McNabb, 46, lived on North Claiborne Avenue in the Ninth Ward, a neighborhood devastated by floodwaters. Cubero, who lives in California, gave the Red Cross McNabb's name days after the hurricane hit. She received no follow-up phone calls, so she posted his name on a Web site for missing persons.

"I think he could have swum out," Cubero said, her voice catching. "I don't think he died, but I don't know. It worries me, this not knowing. I can't find anybody who knows anything. That's what's driving me crazy."

The identification of more than 1,000 people who died when Katrina struck is moving forward slowly.

In Mississippi, about half of the 220 bodies recovered so far have been identified. In Louisiana, the victims who have been positively identified are mostly those who died in hospitals and nursing homes and had identification bracelets and medical records, said Bob Johannessen, spokesman for the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals.

However, because the attorney general's office is investigating the deaths of patients at some health care facilities in New Orleans, their names have not been released.

The majority of bodies were found in homes and on the street, and many were severely decomposed, Johannessen said.

"There's no way to visually identify them," he said, "and fingerprints are iffy at best."

In addition, on Mississippi's Gulf Coast, storm surges "leveled coastal facilities that have records that would help answer some of these questions and confirm what family members tell us," said Warren Tewes, a forensic dentist from Maryland working for the federal government in Gulfport.

Those same surges may have carried out some bodies that will never be recovered, he said.

Complicating families' efforts to identify loved ones are the jurisdictional lines drawn in Mississippi and Louisiana between local, state and federal agencies.

All information regarding missing and dead can come only from state and local officials, usually coroners, said Cotton Howell, commander of the federal Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Team.

State employees based in St. Gabriel, La., are handling the process of identifying the dead. About 700 of the 885 bodies recovered in Louisiana are at St. Gabriel, said Joanne Adams, business manager in the Iberville Parish Coroner's Office.

"They have not given us a list of those they have identified," she said. "Families call us, and we're not a help. We've been told to give them the same number that people call for lost family members. The families usually call us back and tell us they got nowhere. They were just asked a lot of questions."

Another problem is that federal, state and local officials do not have a centralized, reliable listing of missing persons. Various agencies keep their own lists, and unofficial lists proliferate on the Internet.

"The trouble is, there are dozens of these lists," Howell said. "People want to help, but there is no way to know if these are accurate. When a person is reunited with their family, they don't think about making sure their name is off the list."

Despite the long lists of people reported missing—the Federal Emergency Management Agency's list has 1,200 names for Mississippi alone—Johannessen said he doubts large numbers of additional dead will be found.

Terry Lucas filled out a long questionnaire describing her parents on Sept. 20: their scars, the type of jewelry they might have worn, even the shape of their hands and ears.

But in the end, it came down to a simple visual identification.

Lucas was taken to the mobile morgue and shown two body bags. She told the attendant to unzip the bag holding her father, but he hesitated.

"He just unzipped it a little bit, just past my father' ear," she said, "That was enough. I knew that was my father's ear. They wouldn't unzip my mother's bag. They said they found them together. I guess that will have to be enough."

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(Pawlaczyk reports for the Belleville News-Democrat. Garcia, of The Kansas City Star, reported from New Orleans.)

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

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