ST. GABRIEL, La. — The three tiny pieces of film were crucial. Side by side on a light box, the X-rays matched perfectly with the digital images on the computer screen, down to each filling, crown and bridge.
“We just got another one!” forensic dentist David Senn announced, poking his head outside a small trailer where a handful of people pored over computer images of teeth.
As hundreds of Katrina dead remain unnamed and families continue searching for bodies, Senn said a team of dental workers began Thursday to piece together identities through teeth — in many instances some of the only markers Katrina didn’t wipe away.
“Dental records are a great solution. A good dental record is akin ... to a good fingerprint,” said Louis Cataldie, the Louisiana state medical examiner and the head of the state’s Katrina body recovery and identification efforts.
Bringing dignity to the dead
Bodies stuck for days or weeks in contaminated floodwaters, heat and muck after Katrina struck Aug. 29 are proving difficult to identify. Animals have complicated matters. Race and gender can’t be determined by sight in some cases, Cataldie said.
“Unfortunately, a lot of these folks don’t have skin anymore,” he said.
Katrina’s death toll in Louisiana stands at 1,035, but only 132 of 842 bodies taken to the St. Gabriel temporary morgue had been released to their families. Cataldie said 128 others have been positively identified and would be released for burial within days. Bodies still are being found as people return to areas that had been severely flooded, he said.
Forensic workers are collecting DNA samples, but Cataldie said that identification work would take months. Dental records are an easier way to match corpses to names and families. Cataldie has suggested that family members searching for a lost mother or brother provide smiling photos if they can’t track down dental X-rays because a person’s teeth can be unique enough that just a photo can assist.
“You may not have a dental record, but you may have a photo of your momma smiling, and that’s helpful,” Cataldie said.
Big gains in a short time
In the short time it’s been under way, the dental identification work at the temporary morgue near Baton Rouge has proven successful: About two dozen bodies were identified in just two days by comparing the digital X-rays taken of their teeth with the records collected from dentists, doctors and hospitals, said Senn of San Antonio, part of a federal team.
“Today, we got three in the last hour. Now there’s three families in New Orleans who will get their loved ones back,” Senn said Friday.
A few minutes later, Robin Scheper, a dentist with the Coast Guard based in Cape May, N.J., made her own link. “You could just match them up and, boom,” she said of the teeth images.
But tracking down dental records, collecting them from once-flooded offices and determining whether any film is useful, has been a tedious task.
Difficult detective work
People reporting missing family members to a state hot line are asked to submit a medical history, including names of dentists, doctors and hospitals that may have performed medical procedures. Workers have been tracking down the doctors and dentists, and retrieving any X-rays and medical records that survived the wind, rain and floods.
The dental identification work only just began because it has taken that long to track down enough records, Senn said. Contaminated and damp records have been dried in the sun next to the dental trailer.
As the work continues, the anger of families searching for the bodies of their loved ones continues to grow.
Only hours before the dental team cheered their matches, Nancy Eleby and her sister, Earline Eleby-Coleman, paced outside the morgue bearing signs demanding the release of the body of their mother, Clementine.
She died Sept. 1 waiting for help at the New Orleans convention center with one of her eight daughters, who attached identification to her mother’s body, Nancy Eleby said.
“We’ve been begging for our mother. Please, please give us our mother,” Nancy Eleby pleaded Friday, her mother’s 80th birthday. “Someone should be able to say to us, ’We have your relative.”’
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