Focus is shifting to grim task of identifying dead

Mobile mortuaries set up in La., Miss. to prepare victims for burial

Katrina's Wake

September 07, 2005|By Julie Bell and Frank D. Roylance | Julie Bell and Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

Now comes the gruesome, painstaking and respectful task of identifying the dead.

Though crews are still searching for survivors, the focus in New Orleans and across Hurricane Katrina's path is turning to the regimented work of finding, recovering and identifying bodies.

Federal disaster officials have already dispatched two complete mobile mortuaries to Louisiana and Mississippi. One has been established in Biloxi, Miss.; the other is operating in a warehouse in St. Gabriel, La.

Called DMORTs, for Disaster Mortuary Teams, they include a full complement of professionals and highly specialized equipment for processing, identifying and preparing the remains of disaster victims for burial.

But the efforts are complicated by Katrina's enormous scale. There is as yet no accurate list of the missing. Dental records that might otherwise help are likely to have been destroyed or damaged. The South's relentless heat, the hurricane's violence and the deteriorating effects of the floodwaters in which many bodies rest all will make the efforts more difficult.

"Not everybody can do it," said Don Heer, a Colorado mortician and county coroner who will be going to Louisiana in a few weeks to join one of the DMORTs that have begun processing and identifying bodies.

"The decomposition is going to be incredible. ... I know the working conditions are atrocious at best," said Heer, who helped create the teams in 1992 and served on them after the Sept. 11 terrorist attack in New York and a variety of airplane crashes and floods.

Mobile recovery teams began collecting bodies over the weekend. In the New Orleans area, dozens of crews from the National Guard to the state Department of Wildlife and Fisheries are recovering bodies from flooded homes and other areas. They bring them to a single collection point at the interchange of interstates 10 and 610, said Melissa Walker, a spokeswoman for the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals.

There, experts from the mortuary teams do initial identification work, recording information such as the address or the Global Positioning System coordinates where the body was found. They also bag and record any personal items found with the person.

Then they load them onto refrigerated trailers that are driven to the temporary morgue in St. Gabriel, an industrial town between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, La.

Inside the warehouse, more of the team members are waiting.

They can include funeral directors, medical examiners, coroners, pathologists, forensic anthropologists, fingerprint specialists, forensic dentists, radiologists and X-ray technicians, mental health specialists trained to help the families of victims and team members, computer professionals, security and support staff. All volunteer for the work and are paid as federal employees.

Already in place is a complete mobile mortuary, including pathologists' tools, exam tables and measuring devices. There are also dental and full-body X-ray machines and developing equipment, water heaters, electric equipment, photographic gear, computers, fax machines and copiers.

In some cases, the experts will have a head start on a victim's identity. The person, for example, could have a laminated driver's license still in a pocket. Or a victim might be a patient who died in the hospital and is, therefore, accompanied by medical records, Walker said.

If quick identification is made, the body will be released to the family - if one can be found - for funeral arrangements, she said.

"If they can't afford to, the state will provide proper burial," Walker said. "We are in the process of trying to identify a cemetery for these victims."

But experts say that, in many cases, the task is likely to be far more complicated.

In the most complicated cases, DNA can be used as a last resort. But testing is costly and time-consuming. And the samples aren't helpful unless a relative has provided a DNA sample for comparison.

Conditions during the past week will make many identifications difficult.

"The flooding and high temperatures, of course, makes decomposition occur at a more rapid rate," said Dr. Julia C. Goodin, Iowa's chief medical examiner. "Therefore, they're facing a time challenge to make sure they recover bodies and get them into refrigeration."

As bodies decompose, scars and tattoos become harder to recognize and eventually are no longer apparent at all. Fingerprinting also becomes impossible after a time.

Nevertheless, the mortuary teams must try to determine not just the identify of a set of remains, but also how the person died - whether by drowning, homicide, heat or suffocation in an attic or from natural causes, such as a heart attack.

The teams may be working without air conditioning, wearing air filtration masks and protective uniforms that hold the heat, the chemical fumes and the smell of death.

"That's where people in the profession have an advantage," Heer said. "They're prepared."

Through it all, he said, the teams work to preserve the dignity of the dead.

"You handle everybody individually," he said. "They're putting them in refrigerated trucks to move them, placing them, not stacking them on top of one another. ... You just have to be respectful in handling the body and in everything you do. It's somebody's loved one, no matter how they died."

Psychological help is available to families and to the mortuary workers themselves, Heer said. "No matter how stable a person may have been prior to it, it can be real challenging in a disaster situation."

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