As body counts mounted and missing-person reports multiplied after Hurricane Katrina, some morgue workers began using tiny computer chips to keep track of unidentified remains.
Radio frequency identification chips — slender red cylinders about a centimeter (half an inch) long — were implanted under the corpses' skin or placed inside body bags at two Mississippi counties.
Each VeriChip, donated by a subsidiary of Applied Digital Solutions Inc., emits a specific radio signal, enabling morgue workers to quickly locate and catalog the remains, speed the morgue-management process and reduce errors.
With 48 of the 133 bodies recovered in Harrison and Hancock counties still unidentified as of Sunday, Harrison County Coroner Gary T. Hargrove said the chips have been a boon to the Disaster Mortuary Operational Recovery Team he oversees.
"It's better enabled me to do my job as the coroner — tracking and getting people's loved ones back to them quickly," he said.
Beside tagging the storm victims, which are kept in refrigerated trucks at Gulfport-Biloxi Regional Airport, the chips are helping Hargrove catalog other human remains that the flood waters dislodged from caskets and burial vaults.
Product manufacturers and retailers such as Wal-Mart use similar technology to monitor the movement of goods. VeriChips, which were approved by the Food and Drug Administration for human implantation in 2004, have been used for tagging pets and identifying high-security workers, but not for managing morgue cases before, Applied Digital spokesman John O. Procter said.
The RFID chips are being used only with remains from Harrison and Hancock counties. Their combined death toll represents more than half of the 220 people killed by Katrina in Mississippi. At least 1,079 deaths have been attributed to Katrina in five states.
Each chip comes packaged in a white plastic injector that looks like a bulky pen attached to a thick hypodermic needle. The chips are implanted in the corpse's shoulder or placed inside the body bag and handheld scanners that read the radio signals.
The beige plastic scanners, which resemble TV remote controls, have screens that display a 16-digit number when passed within 15 centimeters (6 inches) of a chip.
"The VeriChip allows the technicians to accurately and quickly identify the remains inside the body bag without having to open the body bag at each step along the process," Procter said.
While officials in Mississippi are using the technology for free, Applied Digital recommends doctors charge a total of about $200 for the chip, the injector to place it under a person's skin and for performing the procedure.
While some privacy advocates fear that implantable chips could lead to unwanted tracking of humans, relatives of those who died in the wake of Katrina welcome the technology.
"If it helps the families find their loved ones, then I think it's a good thing," said Chuck Kerr, a Murfreesboro, Tennessee, businessman whose parents' bodies were kept in Gulfport for nearly two weeks.