After Hurricane Katrina socked the central Gulf Coast, Eldo and Julia Allen watched the news and waited in vain for word from their son in Biloxi, Miss.
They waited for nearly four months, not knowing the horrific truth: that their son and daughter-in-law died as the storm surge swallowed their Beach Boulevard apartment. That their bodies had long since been found and identified at the Harrison County, Miss., coroner’s office. And that they were about to be “disposed of” after going so long unclaimed.
The agencies the Allens had been calling all those months hadn’t contacted the coroner, and the coroner hadn’t checked with the agencies.
“Nobody talked to nobody,” Eldo Allen said, his voice wrapped in grief. “That’s why we just was almost too late. If we’d been a little later they would have disposed of the bodies with ‘next of kin unknown,’ and that would have been ... “
He bowed his head over a dining room table laden with family photo albums, sympathy cards from the retirement community, and the black box holding his son’s ashes, before completing his thought: “That would have been more than I could stand.”
More than 4,200 still reported missing
Some 18,000 people were reported lost in the wake of the 2005 Gulf Coast hurricanes; more than 4,200 are still reported missing in some fashion. The unprecedented number of displaced people prompted the federal government to expand the definition of missing to just about anyone who had a relative who didn’t know where they were.
But despite scores of people calling around on behalf of government and nonprofit agencies, some victims, like the Allens, just fell through the cracks.
John David Allen, a 48-year-old construction worker, lived with his wife, Susan, 53, in an apartment near the Biloxi waterfront.
His cell phone must have been on the blink before the storm, when his parents saw maps of the swirling mass called Katrina heading his way and tried to call him. “This number is not available,” a recording said.
But after the storm, the parents insisted, John would have known they were worried. He would have found a way to call.
By the end of the second day after the Aug. 29 storm, Eldo Allen was on the phone with the Red Cross, which gave him a case number and told him to put his son and daughter-in-law’s names on their online list of missing people.
With no leads weeks later, the Allens gave up on the Red Cross and tried the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
No information available
FEMA gave them a telephone number for finding missing family, which they called once or twice a week for months. The answer was always the same: No information.
By December, they were certain their son was dead. The telling clue came when a Social Security official told them John was earning money until the day before the storm; since then, there’d been nothing. The same worker was able to contact people John had worked for. No one had seen him.
By now, the Allens had had enough.
“Where did you take the bodies?” Eldo asked a FEMA representative. “Maybe I can come down and identify them myself.”
The FEMA staffer told him to try the local coroner. That was Dec. 19.
A lady named Joy answered the phone at the Harrison County, Miss., coroner’s office.
“She told me immediately, ‘He did not survive the storm and neither did his wife Susan and we’ve known for over two months but couldn’t find any of his family members,”’ Eldo Allen said. “So they didn’t check. They didn’t talk with FEMA, FEMA didn’t talk with them and the Red Cross didn’t talk to either.”
The bodies had already been cremated.
“The bodies were in such bad shape they said there was no other way,” Julia Allen said.
One miscommunication after another
Other frustrations with FEMA would be comic if they weren’t so tragic. The Allens applied for burial assistance and got a letter denying an application for a small business loan. John’s Social Security number, not Eldo’s, ended up on the application. A lady called asking if they would be moving back to Mississippi.
“They are so swamped I guess that they’re not getting much of anything right,” Eldo said.
FEMA spokesman Butch Kinerney said it is the local medical examiner’s job to call the next of kin. And when the coroner can’t find next of kin? He said there might be “some discussion in the future of insuring that the local coroner has the ability to do that.”
“We grieve with this family,” he said.
Red Cross connection efforts
Tom Corl, director of international family tracing services for the American Red Cross, said the Red Cross had offered an online service to help loved ones locate one another — more than 340,000 people had signed on — but had never gotten involved with the storm’s deaths.
“We tried not to let any information about deceased parties be posted simply because we didn’t know if it was verifiable,” he said.
The Harrison County coroner did not return repeated calls for comment.
They were free spirits, John and Susan. John liked to play guitar and write songs, Susan was known for her candor and the way she clapped her hands and exclaimed, “Yeah, baby!” when she was happy. She worked as a school custodian full time, with a part-time gig dealing blackjack at one of the casinos.
Moved to Biloxi to avoid hurricanes
Once, when the topic of hurricanes came up, the elder Allens expressed fear that one would devastate the Texas coast. John told his father he should move to Biloxi — the city’s stately old mansions were proof that hurricanes never hit there.
Eldo Allen hasn’t been able to find out exactly how long his son’s and daughter-in-law’s bodies lay in the post-storm debris before they were found, only that it was “a whole lot of days.”
He searched the Internet last week and found a New York Times story about the Biloxi devastation, and it mentioned that an apartment building had been hit by a gambling barge in the storm, burying eight people.
In the article, someone points to a foot and then a knee visible in the rubble. “That’s J.D.,” the person says. “And that’s Sue.”
No belongings were returned — no wedding rings or other jewelry, not the eagle necklace John always wore.
John was identified through his fingerprints, which matched prints taken decades earlier when he served in the Air Force. Then it was easy to identify Susan.
Susan was estranged from her family in Wisconsin, but the Allens say someone must care. Eldo yearned to tell them that she finally was cared for in death, that “She didn’t just get ‘disposed of.’ That’s such a terrible word, ‘disposed of.”’
On Wednesday, friends joined the Allens as they buried a coffin containing two ash-filled urns: One for John, and one for Susan.