Monday, September 05, 2005

Makeshift morgue works to identify Katrina's dead

Makeshift morgue works to identify Katrina's dead
Mon Sep 5, 2005 3:59 PM ET

By Jim Loney

ST. GABRIEL, Louisiana (Reuters) - In a long, low, nondescript warehouse in a Louisiana town that used to be a leper colony, Hurricane Katrina's victims will be identified and returned to their families.

A convoy of refrigerated trucks, seven in all, pulled up alongside the makeshift morgue early on Monday. The bodies will be stored inside.

In the warehouse, the location of which authorities are trying to keep quiet to lend some dignity to the grim task of collecting and processing perhaps thousands of corpses, concrete floors are covered with plastic sheets to contain fluids that could pose a biohazard threat.

Rows of stainless steel gurneys await the first bodies. Processing is expected to start within 24 hours and the U.S. Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Team (DMORT) has drawn up a plan to handle in excess of 5,000 corpses.

"Families need to know what happened to the people they lose," said Dr. David Senn, a forensic dentist from San Antonio, Texas, who helped identify victims of the September 11 attack on New York and gathered remains after the space shuttle Columbia disaster in 2003.

DMORT teams, comprised of pathologists, coroners, forensic anthropologists and experts in fingerprinting, DNA and dental identification, will be able to process up to 140 bodies a day.

When they enter the cavernous building, the bodies, many of which have been submerged in the toxic swamp that inundated New Orleans, will be decontaminated using a chlorine solution.

They will be taken through regimented stages that include examination by a forensic pathologist, panoramic X-rays, fingerprinting and dental exams. DNA will be extracted from bone.

"These are my patients. They are not just bodies," said Dr. Corinne Stern, a medical examiner from El Paso, Texas who said the goal of the DMORT team is to "reunite families and to answer questions for the families."

Even for those accustomed to disaster, aspects of the job can be difficult.

"I don't like identifying children," Senn said. "When I think about St. Bernard Parish where families were scrambling into attics to escape the water, I can visualize that there were children in that group. It's not the best part of the job."

The morgue, which will see a steady stream of bodies in coming days as U.S. and state authorities ramp up the collection of corpses from the flooded streets and homes of New Orleans, was located in a place that was "partly founded on tragic circumstances," said its mayor, George Grace.

St. Gabriel, a town of 6,000 on the east bank of the Mississippi River about 70 miles from New Orleans, was a leper colony in 1921 and hosts a leper facility to this day.

Grace welcomed the chance to help deal with the Katrina disaster.

"We want to do it with dignity and respect," he said. Local officials assured residents the biohazards would be contained.

Dr. Louis Cataldie, Louisiana's emergency medical services director, said there had been no concerted effort to collect corpses in the week since Katrina struck as rescuers focused on survivors. But the task was to begin in earnest within hours.

"Ideally, all hurricane victims will be brought into this facility," he said. "If worse comes to worst, they can process 130 to 140 individuals per 24-hour period here."

Members of the unit responsible for decontaminating the corpses wore black T-shirts with a skull and crossbones on the back. Playing on the term "first responders," which refers to emergency medical units and fire crews, the words "last responders" were splashed across the shirts.

"The job they're doing, you've got to have some sense of humor," an information officer for the unit said.