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Authorities seek next of kin for identified bodies

ST. GABRIEL, La.—The remains of about 50 people rest in body bags on refrigerated rows of aluminum tables in Louisiana's post-Katrina morgue site.

They're identified and ready for funeral homes to pick them up, but they're going nowhere because no one can be found to claim them.

As the pace of naming the dead quickens, family assistance workers find they can't locate kin for about 40 percent of the bodies, said Dr. Louis Cataldie, who heads the state recovery effort.

Some people completed questionnaires describing their missing relatives, moved out of shelters or motels and never called back. Others remain mysteries. Some of the dead lack any next of kin.

"Certain people don't want to be found," said Don Bloom, a technology specialist tracking data on the dead at the family assistance center near Baton Rouge. "We've had a couple requests not to call anymore. They don't have money to bury them and just want the state to do it."

On Tuesday, the recovery operation enlisted the Louisiana State Police, which can access federal Department of Justice information, to track down families.

Cataldie said giving the names of the deceased to media outlets would help, but he faces a Catch-22: Louisiana law requires next of kin to be notified first.

"I've got to find a way to notify the families," he said. "My preference is to publish their names."

Cataldie acknowledged the emotional downside: discovering a loved one's death from news accounts. Still, he said he might request an emergency state order to suspend the law.

"You run into so many dead ends," said Michael Tilghman, a Mississippi funeral home director working under the Federal Emergency Management Agency to locate families. "It's a slow, frustrating process."

The state morgue operation, working with local parish coroners, has recovered 1,021 bodies, according to the latest official count, which doesn't include dozens of evacuees who died in other states.

The numbers continue to rise as residents return to find deceased loved ones in their homes, despite the ubiquitous spray paint code showing search-and-rescue teams had checked residences.

A search team from Virginia and Maryland fanned out this week with cadaver dogs across a 30-block stretch of the wrecked Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans.

The neighborhood remains officially closed to residents, though New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin said he planned to let residents in Wednesday to inspect their homes.

Some houses remain standing. Others are pancaked, their roofs collapsed. The door-to-door search through New Orleans has largely ended.

"We're searching in places that have no doors," said Rick Christ of Virginia, who heads the team.

The morgue in St. Gabriel has handled the remains of 828 people, mostly from Orleans and St. Bernard's parishes.

Facing criticism over the pace of identifying and releasing bodies, Cataldie and New Orleans coroner Frank Minyard last week cited bureaucratic missteps, both in quickly retrieving remains and identifying them.

Until last week, for instance, officials never linked data on recovered bodies with a database of information from relatives of those feared dead, Cataldie said.

Fixing the problem produced immediate results, including several identifications from tattoo designs and one from a pacemaker, authorities said.

The mortuary facility has released the remains of 93 people, with 121 more ready for release, Cataldie said. The state has identified another 263.

Bloom said he expects more connections soon from engraved wedding rings, scars and other physical markers.

Forensic teams also have identified several bodies using dental records retrieved from New Orleans, fingerprint data and prostheses.

Badly decomposed bodies may defy identification for months, as the state looks to its last resort: DNA.

Like bodies that never get identified, those that go unclaimed will rest in a special state cemetery for Katrina victims. Remains could be disinterred and reburied if family members appear, Cataldie said.

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

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

GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20051011 STORMS BODIES

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