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New Orleans coroner at center of another storm

NEW ORLEANS—Frank Minyard's business—when he isn't playing jazz trumpet in the French Quarter—is death. And, in recent months, death has been occupying most of his time.

Given that mix of jazz and autopsies, Minyard, New Orleans' coroner, embodies the surreal combo of whimsy and death that's enshrouded this city since Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

In Louisiana, the death toll from Katrina is above 1,000, mostly from Minyard's jurisdiction, Orleans Parish. He now works and lives in St. Gabriel, just outside the capital of Baton Rouge, where authorities have built a vast necropolis, a city of death capable of processing 144 bodies a day.

Flooding made a toxic gumbo of Minyard's Orleans Parish, killing hundreds.

At first, he took the task of identifying and autopsying the dead in stride. He said he'd handle it like any other day at the office in a city that regularly tops the nation's homicide charts with about 300 a year. After all, he and New Orleans had survived Hurricane Betsy in 1965, in which more than 60 died.

Minyard, 76, has been elected as New Orleans' coroner eight times, to four-year terms. He knows his way around the autopsy table as well as he knows his trumpet, which he played regularly at Preservation Hall. There he was known as "Dr. Jazz."

Music is in his blood. His mother, Norma Minyard, had been a jazz pianist.

But when Minyard arrived at work after Katrina and found the Orleans Parish coroner's office under 10 feet of water, he knew times had changed for his beloved city and him. His workplace of many years was gone. For nearly a week, state officials thought he was dead.

He and some of his staff were rescued from the office four days later, after rising floodwaters trapped them there. With $7 in his pocket, Minyard hitchhiked to Baton Rouge where other city and state officials were gathering.

Most of his resources and staff were scattered. No office, little communication. And bodies were arriving in staggering numbers, dozens each day. The task was beyond anyone's experience.

"We can't call our colleagues, because nothing like this has happened before," Minyard said at a recent news conference, sporting his signature cowboy boots. "Even the 2001 attack tragedy at the World Trade (Center) towers didn't match it. During 9-11 they didn't have whole bodies. They had parts."

And 42 percent of the Sept. 11 victims were never identified, according to Dr. Michael Baden, a forensic pathologist known for his HBO TV series and testimony in high-profile cases.

Baden, who's known Minyard for three decades, helped him process bodies one weekend this month. At the end of the month, well-known forensic pathologist Cyril Wecht of Pittsburgh will arrive, followed by about 15 other volunteers obtained through the National Association of Medical Examiners.

Baden said Minyard liked to give back to the community, by helping addicts and rape victims. He said Minyard was one of the first medical examiners to become involved in rape counseling. He added that Minyard might not be a pathologist—his training was in obstetrics-gynecology—but he was a good manager who'd led investigations into many major New Orleans deaths.

Death in the aftermath of the hurricane was like no case Minyard had ever dealt with, however.

He knew he had to fare better than the 58 percent identification rate for the World Trade Center. Bodies from New Orleans were "family."

But he'd have to work by federal rules. Living out of trailers, he'd be a guest of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and he suddenly found himself restrained by copious regulations and guidelines.

"You wouldn't believe the bureaucracy," he said.

Minyard and his colleague, Dr. Louis Cataldie, quickly made the national spotlight, facing sharp questions from angry families and from reporters. Day after day, the same refrain: Why was it taking so long to process bodies? Why weren't bodies being returned to families?

Dental records ruined by flooding slowed identification, as did ghastly decomposition. The recovery of bodies in Louisiana didn't begin for 13 days, as officials bickered over who would retrieve them. Bodies putrefied or mummified in shattered houses.

Investigations into allegations of deaths from negligence at nursing homes and mercy killings at hospitals also slowed things down.

There were dealings with other agencies. Minyard complained that FEMA units would close the morgue when their teams had finished work for the day, although FEMA spokesman Don Kelly disputes that.

And there was a lack of equipment. Minyard said he didn't immediately have adequate communications, such as phones or a fax machine.

He said he felt like "Dr. Schweitzer in the Belgian Congo ... using stupid cell phones" that didn't work or that cut off conversations.

Minyard also had problems back in New Orleans. Because of the city's financial troubles, he was ordered to lay off those on his staff of 35 who were unable to report for work. Mayor Ray Nagin laid off 3,000 other city workers.

But all that has meant little to bereaved families who are awaiting funerals or insurance benefits that require death certificates. In Louisiana, if a person is missing, without a body, the state requires two years before pronouncing death.

Some families have had to have empty-casket funerals because they couldn't get their relatives' bodies back before they wanted to conduct the services.

To deal with his problems, Minyard has turned to the news media to exert pressure for more equipment.

"I ain't the greatest politician in the world," he said. "I have used the news media to help with problems here. I've had little experience with red tape. I've always avoided bureaucracy. I've always been outside the system."

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

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