Katrina victims' families find no comfort in death records


BATON ROUGE, LA. -- The Parrs and the Arceneauxs, friends for more than three decades, died together during Hurricane Katrina in the Arceneaux home on Fable Drive in the town of Meraux, east of New Orleans in St. Bernard Parish. All four of them were huddled together, wearing life vests.

That much, their children thought, was straightforward - until the bodies were returned to them from the central morgue at St. Gabriel, La., and the death certificates arrived.

The death certificate for Norman Parr, 69, said he died in New Orleans, while Carol Parr, 59, was said to have perished on Fable Drive, but at the wrong address. Mr. Parr's certificate lists his death as "Hurricane Katrina Related" but also adds that it was due to "cardiovascular disease" and "decomposition." Likewise, Mrs. Parr's certificate cited decomposition as a cause of death, though it also noted she had drowned.

And when Douglas Arceneaux Jr. went to collect the wallet and other personal effects that had been used to identify his parents, Douglas, 69, and Betty, 65, the workers at St. Gabriel said they had been lost.

As families finally begin to receive the bodies of their relatives from St. Gabriel, many have found them accompanied by documents that, instead of shedding light on their deaths, point to enormous sloppiness in record-keeping and procedures at the morgue.

Some have complained of bodies far more decomposed when they came out than when they went in; others that evacuees who died in the company of their families were taken to St. Gabriel without notice and kept there for weeks.

Moreover, as of Friday not a single DNA sample from victims had been matched against samples submitted by families over the past two months, said Dr. Louis Cataldie, the state emergency medical director. Cataldie said that was because federal officials had not yet approved a DNA-testing contract with a laboratory.

The disarray has tormented families who had been seeking reliable official information on how their relatives died. Many were already upset by news reports about victims that have received prominent attention here, including unproved allegations of mercy killings in New Orleans hospitals during the flood and the cremation of some bodies in the northwestern parish of Caddo before their families could locate them.

"I realize that we're dealing with a catastrophe, and grief is part of life," said Cindy Jensen, whose father, LeRoy LaRive, is listed as having been found in an apartment miles from his home - an apartment where another older man also died. "But not this kind of stuff - unanswered stuff. Not knowing the details."

LaRive's wife, Lurniece, was found at a third location, at least according to morgue records, though the family said the couple were inseparable. "I'll never know if the person we buried was really my mother," Jensen's brother, Ken LaRive, said.

Cataldie is nominally responsible for the operations of the morgue and Find Family Call Center, although both are staffed by the federal Disaster Mortuary Operations Response Team, or DMORT. He acknowledged there had been considerable error entry and said some bodies had been delivered without accurate paperwork noting where they had been found.

In the past week, Cataldie has begun to review all the paperwork filled out by Kenyon Worldwide Disaster Management, a company hired by the federal government to collect many of the bodies, in an effort to ferret out errors. It is possible, he said, that some mistakes can be explained by missing street signs or unfamiliar place names.

He has less control over the stalled DNA tests, for which the state police crime laboratory initially assumed responsibility. According to officials at the state Department of Health and Hospitals, the Federal Emergency Management Agency declined to approve two different laboratory contracts negotiated by the state police, saying they were too expensive, and the agency has since shifted responsibility for the contract to the federal Department of Health and Human Services. Nicol Andrews, a spokeswoman for FEMA, said the agency had been struggling to find a way legally to use federal money to pay for the tests because the state was unable to front the costs and had only recently concluded that the Health and Hospitals Department could do so.

While the government decided how to pay for the tests, bone samples taken from each victim and cheek swabs taken from dozens of family members since mid-September piled up, untouched.

"It's criminal," Cataldie said. "I could be reuniting these people now."

From the first days after Hurricane Katrina, the process of identifying and burying the dead has been beset with problems. Even now, only 358 of the 883 victims processed at St. Gabriel (there are 1,050 victims total in Louisiana) have been released to families, and in 150 cases, workers have no leads on the bodies' identities.

Bodies at the morgue are cataloged, examined, fingerprinted and X-rayed by DMORT employees, who also maintain morgue databases and track personal effects. Presented with a flood of complaints from families, a DMORT spokesman provided a "fact sheet" detailing the unit's responsibilities and said he was not authorized to comment further. Death certificates are the responsibility of the Orleans Parish coroner, Dr. Frank Minyard.

Minyard and his counterpart in St. Bernard Parish, Bryan J. Bertucci, said it was not unusual to note the condition of the body on the death certificate, particularly if decomposition made it difficult to determine the cause. But state officials acknowledged that families could be confused by the notation.

"I question decomposition being on a death certificate," Cataldie said. "It is not a cause of death."

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