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Search for hurricane victims goes on in St. Bernard Parish

ST. BERNARD PARISH, La.—Whirling over the Louisiana marshland in a Bell 206 LongRanger helicopter, Capt. Jimmy Bartholomae searched for grim clues early Thursday: Cows gathered in a circle, for instance.

If they face outward, it probably means one is giving birth, and the herd is protecting her. But if they face inward, well, that could be mean something worse.

"They tend to gather around the remains of dead things," Bartholomae said. "Might be worth taking a look."

Nearly three months after Hurricane Katrina struck, much of Louisiana is focused on rebuilding and on identifying the almost 1,100 already recovered dead. But Bartholomae and other sheriff's officers in this devastated parish are still searching for victims undiscovered.

As of Thursday, the parish's confirmed death toll stood at 125, but as many as 30 parish residents remain missing. Some of those already may be in the state morgue, not yet identified, but others may be among the bodies residents said they saw being swept into the marshland through a broken levee after the storm.

"We know we haven't found those bodies yet," Bartholomae said. "We're not expecting to find them in big numbers, but each and every one matters. Their relatives come to us and asked if we know anything about their loved ones."

Some residents returning last week to their ravaged homes found the bodies of missing loved ones still inside, prompting Sheriff Jack Stephens to criticize state authorities for not doing a more complete search in heavily damaged areas.

But the most difficult bodies to find will be any that were carried by 14- to 18-foot floodwaters into the marshes that occupy about 75 percent of the parish's 504 square miles. Shrimp and fishing boats, barges and trailers for 18-wheelers were shoved into the marshes from miles away. Bodies may have been washed there, too, the officers say.

Bob Johannessen, spokesman for the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals, said state officials also are concerned that Katrina washed bodies out to sea or into southern Louisiana marshes.

Most days, Bartholomae and pilot Bubba Guillot go up in the helicopter, which FEMA pays for. They fly low, their eyes fixed out the windows.

Usually still green this time of year, the marsh is brown and muddy and littered with debris—cars, parts of roofs, overturned boats, the tattered remains of fishing villages and camps. Some debris is completely surrounded by murky water.

"There are going to be bodies in these debris fields," said Guillot, a pilot with Air Center Helicopters in Fort Worth, Texas, gesturing below. "There's no way they've all been found under that stuff. Some of these places, no one's been able to get to and see what's there."

Because there was nowhere to land, the helicopter crew marked possible locations of bodies with global positioning satellite equipment. Airboats would be sent in later to search. Of special interest were marooned shrimp boats because some shrimpers were said to have tried to ride out the storm on board, Bartholomae said.

"And I know these people, so I believe some of them would," he said. "These boats are their livelihoods. We've got to get down there with each one and look inside."

Every week, the small newspaper that serves the parish, The St. Bernard News, publishes a list of deceased Hurricane Katrina victims from the community. St. Bernard authorities say they won't stop searching until that list complete.

"Their families deserve to know where they are," Bartholomae said. "If they're out here, we want to find them."

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(Branch reports for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.)

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

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

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