Katrina's dead captive to morgue's bureaucracy

Relatives pained as hundreds lie unidentified, despite information provided

October 02, 2005|By DAVID ZUCCHINO AND NICHOLAS RICCARDI | DAVID ZUCCHINO AND NICHOLAS RICCARDI,LOS ANGELES TIMES

BATON ROUGE, La. -- When he could finally leave his post guarding a nuclear power plant after Hurricane Katrina struck, Richard George Reysack III sped to the flooded home of his 80-year-old father east of New Orleans. Slogging through the muck, he found his father's corpse face-down in the hallway.

As devastating as that discovery was, at least Reysack had his father's remains. Then even that was taken away. The authorities who moved the corpse to a temporary morgue not only won't return it to Reysack for burial, he said, but they won't even confirm that they have it.

Reysack's family has published an obituary and held a memorial service - all without a body.

"My family has had to endure that memorial service knowing that, Lord knows when we'll get my father's body ... and put this behind us," Reysack said.

A month after Katrina upended the lives of hundreds of thousands here, families of the dead have been traumatized yet again by the ordeal of trying to pry loved ones' bodies from a bureaucratic quagmire. They say they have spent weeks being rebuffed or ignored by state and federal officials at a huge temporary morgue that houses hundreds of decomposed bodies.

Many of those bodies are unidentified. But authorities have been provided with ample information to identify dozens of corpses that they continue to hold, to the dismay of family member scattered across the country.

`Horrible times'

The state official in charge of the morgue, Dr. Louis Cataldie, said through a spokesman that he was concerned about the flow of information from the morgue. At a news conference here last week, he acknowledged that many families were suffering.

"These are horrible times," Cataldie said.

Even funeral home directors, who would normally retrieve bodies from authorities, say they have been turned away at the heavily guarded morgue in St. Gabriel.

Among the remains authorities refuse to release are those of people who died before Katrina struck Aug. 29, but were transferred when floodwaters threatened the New Orleans morgue.

"It's inefficient and inept out there - it's beyond incompetence," said William Bagnell, a funeral director who said he was refused access to four bodies at the morgue even though officials had faxed him forms inviting him to pick up the bodies.

Compounded grief

For funeral directors and ordinary citizens alike, the grief of losing a relative has been compounded by the agonizing search for their remains.

Malcolm Gibson, a New Orleans funeral director, said he has tried for more than two weeks to recover the body of his 83-year-old uncle, who died in his home during the storm and whose remains were delivered to the morgue by state police. Authorities would not let him in to identify the body, he said.

Earline Eleby Coleman drove Sept. 5 from Houston to recover the body of her 78-year-old mother, who died at the New Orleans convention center in the arms of another family member. She was told to wait for confirmation that the body was even at the morgue. She is still waiting.

Wayne Dean Ryburn spent 10 days chasing his elderly mother's corpse from hospitals to morgues to parish coroner's offices. He finally recovered it from a morgue in the Louisiana countryside with the help of his sister, a registered nurse who had attended to the dying woman.

And Cal Johnson, a New Orleans funeral director, said he has faxed information to the morgue about an employee, a 75-year-old embalmer who died in his New Orleans home during the storm. But even though police took the body to the morgue, Johnson said, he was told that it could not be located.

`Total loss'

"I'm past the angry stage," said Reysack, who discovered his father's body Sept. 11. "It's total loss and total frustration, as if you've got your hands tied and the answer is right there in front of you but you can't get it."

Cataldie, a former medical examiner, acknowledged that identifying and releasing bodies has been painfully slow. Of the 784 bodies taken to the morgue, he said, just 32 have been identified positively and 340 more have been identified tentatively.

Because many bodies decomposed in heat and floodwaters after being left uncollected, Cataldie said, some victims will never be identified and their cause of death never known.

Forensic specialists supervised by the Federal Emergency Management Agency are taking X-rays and fingerprints of the corpses, but identifying bodies and notifying next of kin is being handled by state officials. Their greatest fear is misidentifying a corpse in the deluge of bodies.

"I wish I could speed up the process," Cataldie said. "But speeding up the process could contaminate the process, and I just can't do that."

Bob Johannssen, a spokesman for the state Department of Health and Hospitals, said part of the problem might be that families haven't been told to call the National Find Family Call Center (866-326-9393). He said the center relays information between families and the morgue.

Reysack, the nuclear plant worker, said that as Katrina approached, he and his sister implored their father to leave his house in the low-lying New Orleans suburb of Arabi.

"I know what I'm doing," the elder Reysack told his children. "I'm not leaving my home."

After helping recover his father's body, Reysack filled out paperwork, provided a DNA sample and confirmed his father's identity to the recovery team. He was told to contact FEMA to retrieve the body.

But his calls got him nowhere. He said he reached one chaplain in St. Gabriel who told him that the paperwork had been lost and that the computer did not show his father's corpse as "identified."

"My ultimate mission and purpose in life now is: I want an answer," he said. "Someone has to explain to me how they lost my father's body."

David Zucchino and Nicholas Riccardi write for the Los Angeles Times.

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