Crews are driving around coastal Mississippi, picking up bodies left on sidewalks like garbage and depositing them in refrigerated mobile morgues. Coroners are conducting autopsies in parking lots because the only available light is from the sun.
Most Hurricane Katrina relief efforts are focused on the living, many of whom are struggling to get enough food, water, shelter, power and medical attention. The dead are a lower priority, and many bodies have been putrefying since the water receded Monday.
The official death toll was 126 and rising Thursday as search-and-rescue teams and dogs go through the ruins of neighborhoods washed away by the huge storm surge.
Most of the bodies in Jackson County — where the beach towns of Pascagoula, Gautier and Ocean Springs were swamped — have been taken to the Heritage Funeral Home in Moss Point. The business has no water, power or phone service, making the job of storing and identifying the dead difficult for county coroner Vicki Broadus and a forensic pathologist working with her.
Difficulty identifying victims
A refrigerated truck was running in the parking lot Thursday with 10 bodies, six of which could not be identified. Broadus said most of the victims drowned or suffered severe injuries when buildings collapsed around them.
Their faces have been distorted from the water or the rubble and they have started to decompose. Their identification and clothes were swept away, and many bodies had drifted miles from home.
“We are looking for any scars, tattoos, dental work. I’m doing DNA, fingerprinting and photos,” she said Thursday. “It’s not easy. This isn’t like looking at James standing there and telling what he looks like. These people really are not identifiable right now.”
On the other side of the state in Waveland, one of the hardest-hit towns, police and others drove past obliterated homes in pickup trucks, stopping where bodies had been spotted by officials or reported by family or neighbors.
“All we’ve been told is that there are bodies lying around, and we can’t get to them all,” police patrolman John Saltarelli said.
Poignant, painful scenes
Many family and neighbors tried to treat the bodies with respect, using what they found amid the debris to wrap the bodies.
Wednesday, the crew picked up an older woman’s body that had been laid out on a sidewalk in front of a single-story brick apartment complex. A flower-patterned curtain covered her body, and her arms were outstretched. Her face was contorted.
Police did not know her name.
Search and rescue crews were still trying to work their way to areas west of Waveland, expecting to find more bodies. Teams of dogs were sent into the rubble to try to pick up the scent of the living, or the dead.
Some survivors were pulled out as late as Wednesday, when crews found an 80-year-old man under 12 feet of debris in Long Beach. Officials did not release his condition or name.
Funerals take backseat to hard job
Broadus expects many more bodies in Jackson County. They have been examining bodies on a table in the parking lot, washing the corpses with soap, searching for identifiable marks and taking fingerprints, photos and material for a DNA sample.
When done, they apply a topical preservative, zip the body back into a bag and put it back in the refrigerated truck.
When people call to report missing people, Broadus suggests giving more than the basic details about age, weight and height. She wants to know what surgeries people have had, what clothing they were wearing and even what kind of underwear they had on.
“If they routinely wear boxers or briefs, whether they have dentures or partial plates — anything that might help us,” she said.
It will be at least a week and maybe longer before any funerals are conducted, Heritage manager James V. Miller said.
“If we could get power, if we could get phone service, we could serve the families we have waiting,” he said. “Then you have to be able to coordinate with cemeteries, casket suppliers and vault companies.”