After Katrina, agony lingers

Months after the hurricane, families such as the Deamers question the slow pace of victim recovery and identification

December 01, 2005|By DOUGLAS BIRCH | DOUGLAS BIRCH,SUN REPORTER

For the Deamer family, the slow pace of accounting for the victims of Hurricane Katrina has brought a succession of dashed hopes and heartbreaking discoveries.

After weeks of anxious phone calls, they learned in late September that a search team had found the body of an elderly man in the New Orleans home where Leslie Deamer Sr., 92, lived with his 85-year-old sister, Ella Marie.

Relatives thought the body would be removed and quickly identified. They held out hope that Ella Marie might turn up alive. But when they went to the mud-caked, mildewed home on St. Bernard Avenue in early October, they found Leslie's decomposing remains. On a return visit 11 days later, they came across the body of his sister in a dark corner of the attic.

The family's ordeal wasn't over. Authorities refused to release the bodies until last month, insisting on further evidence of their identities.

"This has been a tough time for all of us," wrote Leslie's daughter, Patricia Deamer, in a Web log the day she found Ella Marie's body. "It's not just the loss of family, but the sheer inhumane way the people of New Orleans have been treated."

Three months after Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast, the recovery and identification of the dead slogs on, prolonging the anguish of grieving families.

About 1,300 bodies of storm victims have been recovered in the Gulf Coast states in the hurricane's aftermath, among them 1,086 found in Louisiana.

Most were taken to the state's temporary morgue, located until recently at the St. Gabriel town hall, just downriver from Baton Rouge. (This week it moved to a facility in nearby Carville.) So far, 435 bodies - less than half of the 893 examined at the morgue - have been returned to families for burial, state health officials say. Another 186 have been identified but no one has claimed them; two have been identified but are awaiting autopsies; and the identities of 270 remain unknown.

Huge obstacles

Dr. Louis Cataldie, a former East Baton Rouge Parish coroner, was appointed Louisiana's acting state medical examiner after Katrina and oversees the morgue.

Cataldie said in a phone interview that he could not explain how authorities failed to retrieve Leslie Deamer's body after a search team found him Sept. 10. But he acknowledged that it should have been removed long before New Orleans was reopened in October and the Deamer family returned.

"I don't know how the system failed," he said.

Morgue workers say their efforts were hindered by the scope of the damage. Electricity and phones were knocked out for weeks. Medical, dental and government offices were flooded and many vital records destroyed. In Louisiana alone, 4,748 people are officially listed as missing, said a spokesman for the state Department of Health and Hospitals.

Rescue workers "had never approached anything this large in their history," Cataldie said. "You had bodies scattered all over a region the size of Great Britain, floating in toxic sludge."

Cataldie said he had initially assumed that the Federal Emergency Management Agency would collect the bodies, as in other disasters, but FEMA told him the state would have to hire an outside firm.

"That was a shocker," Cataldie said.

Louisiana still has not hired any companies to compare DNA samples from unidentified victims with those of relatives, though officials say the first contracts could be signed tomorrow.

In answer to complaints that he has moved too slowly, Cataldie said he is reluctant to make "presumptive" identifications based, say, on where a body was found. In many cases, he has demanded dental records or other hard evidence. His aim, he said, was to aid victims' families who file lawsuits related to the storm by ensuring that defendants in such cases cannot claim that families have no proof of death.

Orleans Parish coroner Dr. Frank Minyard, who is in charge of autopsies at the temporary morgue, said that for the first month, he had no land-line phones, computers or fax machines.

Most of the 40 people who had worked on his staff were scattered around the country, like other Katrina evacuees. He was able to muster only five for his grim task - three office workers and two pathologists. Two others were assigned later by FEMA. For a time, one typist was available to prepare about 500 autopsy reports.

Work at the morgue, Minyard said, is complicated by the number of agencies there and the complex issue of who pays for what. "I've never been involved in a bureaucracy like this," he said. "I didn't know that if you wanted a telephone, you had to put in for it, the state would refuse to provide it and then FEMA would pay for it."

Anguishing questions

Victims' families say it was very hard to extract solid information from authorities. Thelma Deamer, a professor of education at Southern University in Baton Rouge, has a list of 80 phone numbers she called in the weeks after the storm, begging for information about her missing brother and sister.

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