Bodies still being found months after Katrina

Despite halt of official search, recovery continues in Ninth Ward


NEW ORLEANS -- Nearly two months after Hurricane Katrina struck and more than two weeks after the official quest for bodies was abandoned, corpses of Ninth Ward residents are still being found.

Workers hired by the state remove several ossified bodies each day, many of them discovered by residents returning home.

As of Wednesday, the death count from the hurricane was 1,053. That includes 20 more bodies than the total counted five days earlier, and 80 more than were discovered by Oct. 4, when the search was officially called off.

Lingering floodwater prevented search teams from getting to many homes for weeks after the storm. A city policy preventing workers from entering homes without residents' permission also left many homes unsearched, said Bob Johannessen, a spokesman for the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals.

Workers for Kenyon, the Houston-based independent contractor conducting searches, now enter homes in the barricaded northern half of the Lower Ninth Ward whenever a cadaver dog picks up a scent.

Surviving residents of the poverty-stricken Ninth Ward are outraged that the search is taking so long.

"In all this time, they should have found everybody they have down there," said Chandra McCormick, a photographer who lives in the Lower Ninth Ward's Holy Cross neighborhood.

Efforts to recover the dead in the city's flood-tossed homes have garnered criticism from the start. Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco wrested control of Kenyon from the federal government more than a month ago, saying she was frustrated with its slow progress.

The state Department of Health and Hospitals now oversees the contractor.

"I directed that Kenyon ramp up beyond their previous maximum operations," Blanco said in a Sept. 13 statement. "In death, as in life, our people deserve more respect than they have received."

Searchers did ramp up their efforts, Johannessen said. But there's no end date in sight for retrieving corpses.

"We have always said this is going to be a long process," he said. "The scope of the damaged area is incredibly immense."

Katrina sent a torrent of floodwater gushing through a break in the levee that separates the Ninth Ward from a neighboring canal, sweeping homes off their foundations and submerging others in as much as 20 feet of water. Many who stayed at home drowned.

The delay in finding bodies is devastating to people whose relatives are still missing and whom armed National Guardsmen barred from entering their homes. As long as the Kenyon workers continue to find remains, the Guard unit will enforce the closed boundaries in the hardest-hit half of the Lower Ninth Ward, they've said.

Plans are under way to shuttle residents through their neighborhoods on buses this weekend, according to Lt. Col. Tim Walker of the Washington National Guard, charged with securing the ward. But residents won't be allowed to get off the bus for a closer look at their homes.

The slow recovery also complicates the job of Orleans Parish Coroner Frank Minyard, who is responsible for identifying and performing autopsies on the dead.

"It's very difficult to get any information on a body that's been out seven, eight weeks like these bodies," Minyard said. "Most of them are just skeletons."

Neighbors of the dead see them afforded none of the respect that Blanco promised. Finding and burying the bodies outweighs the property-rights argument that has held up the recovery process, they say.

"That Homeland Security, they were supposed to kick down those doors and get those bodies out. Somebody messed up," said Lower Ninth Ward resident Keith Calhoun. "It's just a sad situation for people who are trying to get closure."

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