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Agonizing wait continues for families of Katrina's victims

GULFPORT, Miss.—While 75 percent of Hurricane Katrina's deceased Mississippi victims have been identified, an agonizing wait continues for family members of the 25 percent who have not.

In Louisiana, far more people are waiting for answers. Only 73 of the 988 victims of Katrina in that state are positively identified, Dr. Louis Cataldie, state medical officer and chief of the body recovery and identification process in Louisiana, said Thursday.

Patricia Kauffman, who has a medical degree in forensic pathology, empathizes with those families. She has worked to identify bodies after disasters—natural, accidental and intentionally inflicted.

She was in western Pennsylvania after Flight 93 crashed on Sept. 11, 2001, in Georgia to clean up in 2002 behind the crematorium owner who failed to do his job, in Rhode Island after the nightclub fire in 2003, and now on the Gulf Coast to supervise Hurricane Katrina's aftermath at one of two mobile FEMA morgues in the nation.

The morgues usually are stored on opposite coasts, but because of Katrina's scope, they're operating in Mississippi and Louisiana. Kauffman, from Philadelphia, is coordinating the Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Team operating out of Gulfport.

"I think those of us who are in this line of work understand it's not something everyone wants to do or can do," said the soft-spoken Kauffman, whose job is to make sure DMORT has the resources needed to identify the deceased. "But the dead should be treated with compassion, and that work must fall to some group. It falls to us."

As forensic experts do their work, families await word of their loved ones.

Jane Mollere, 80, perished in Katrina's floodwaters. When her family evacuated as their home collapsed into the tidal surge, she refused to budge.

"I'm too old for this," she told her son-in-law. The family believes a friend found her body about a block away four days after the Aug. 29 hurricane. More time passed before search and rescue workers retrieved it.

Emily Schulz, Mollere's daughter, still is waiting for her mother's remains. They are believed to be among the 14 unidentified bodies sent to DMORT from Hancock County, where at least 49 people died.

"This is horrific," Schulz said. "Horrific."

DMORT quickly identified victims when dental records, X-rays or fingerprints were available. About 100 DMORT members are in and out of the morgue, including forensic anthropologists who can read skeletal histories the untrained eye never would see.

DNA takes longer and is not foolproof, despite the impression left by crime shows and courtroom dramas. A disaster such as Katrina, where bodies decomposed in floodwaters, can compromise the integrity of DNA.

There's still hope Mollere's body can be identified through X-rays. She had a lumpectomy on her right breast and a fractured elbow. Emily Schulz most recently offered this information to state investigators, who sent it to DMORT through an intermediary.

Kauffman said she and her teammates take their jobs very seriously.

"I like to say it's a calling," Kauffman said. "My colleagues and I treat the dead as if they were our own families. We have the tragedy as a backdrop and, at the same time, are trying to minister to the dead. It is a challenge. I don't think just anybody could do this.

"It takes a sense of compassion—handling someone's child, parent or friend. The family can't do it, so we do it for them."

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(Lee reports for the Biloxi Sun-Herald.)

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

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): WEA-STORMS-DEAD

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