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Katrina’s victims remain largely nameless

A month after Katrina, most of the nearly 1,000 dead in Louisiana lie anonymously in a morgue because authorities have released only a handful of  names, and also, perhaps, because many of the victims’ families were scattered by the storm.
New Orleans coroner Dr. Frank Minyard describes how the FBI uses Hurricane Katrina victims' fingerprints for identification on Thursday in Baton Rouge, La.Judi Bottoni / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Within weeks of the attack on the World Trade Center, the public knew a lot about many of the Sept. 11 victims — their families, their jobs, their commute, even some of the intimate details of their final moments. The victims’ families mobilized with remarkable effectiveness to make sure their loved ones were found and their stories told.

More than a month after Hurricane Katrina, the vast majority of the nearly 1,000 dead in Louisiana lie anonymously in a morgue — largely because authorities have released only a few dozen names, but also, perhaps, because many of the victims’ families were scattered by the storm and are still picking up the pieces of their lives.

There has been no clamor from the victims’ loved ones, little public pressure on officials to release the identities of the dead or at least try harder to attach names to the bodies.

Most of the 976 dead in a St. Gabriel morgue remain unidentified, awaiting release to relatives. Hamstrung by lost dental records and the decomposition of bodies that floated in floodwaters and lay in searing heat for days or weeks, officials say an accurate catalog of the dead may be weeks away, or longer.

“We know families must be frantic,” said Department of Health and Hospitals spokesman Christina Stephens. “We completely understand and are trying to have it move efficiently and quickly, but we have no margin for error. We have to be 100 percent sure before we tell someone a body is their loved one.”

Scattered victims, scattered families
Dr. Michael Doberson, an Arapahoe County, Colo., coroner who helped identify victims at the World Trade Center and in Louisiana, said one difference here is that “things are so much more scattered.”

“It happened over such a great area so it’s hard to get an idea where or who the people are,” he said. “In 9/11 it was all at one site. There was a place for people to gather and present their plight. You aren’t seeing that now probably because families are scattered and because there’s not just one central place people can go to.”

He added: “Something else to consider is that in some cases whole families may have been wiped out and there’s no one left to look for them.”

The Sept. 11 victims included many stockbrokers and traders, and their families tended to be well-off and well-connected, with the means to put pressure on public officials and get their story out. They also had the backing of their loved ones’ employers. Many of the victims in New Orleans, it is believed, were poor and black.

Dr. Silas Lee, a New Orleans political analyst and pollster, said that may help explain the lack of pressure to speed up the identification.

“Being black and poor may be a part of it, but it may not be exclusively that,” said Lee, who is black. He said he, too, believes the main reason is that everyone has been dispersed all over the country by the storm.

Only 32 names made public
As of Thursday morning in Louisiana, only 61 bodies had been released from the morgue, and the names of only 32 victims had been made public. Officials said they are having trouble finding relatives to whom they can release the bodies.

At least 267 victims have been tentatively identified, but officials at the morgue are insisting on DNA, fingerprints or dental records before making a positive match, authorities said.

They said they have taken nearly 250 DNA samples from family members. But many dental records were ruined by the flood. The identifying of the dead was also slowed for days by Hurricane Rita. And because of criminal investigations, all of the more than 100 bodies recovered from nursing homes and hospitals had to be autopsied.

In Mississippi, 196 of the 221 known victims of Katrina have been identified. But tattoos, driver’s licenses and physical characteristics have been used there — means of identification that Louisiana officials say are insufficient by themselves.

Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco regards the identification of the dead as a top priority but does not want the process rushed and someone misidentified, spokeswoman Denise Bottcher said. “That is something you do not want to get wrong,” she said.

Bottcher also said it is unfair to compare Louisiana to Mississippi, because Mississippi did not have the sustained flooding and advanced decomposition that have complicated the process of identifying the dead in Louisiana.