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Katrina Victims Yet to Be Identified

Officials have just found a way to hire out the job of matching DNA from bodies with families.

November 16, 2005|Scott Gold | Times Staff Writer

NEW ORLEANS — Stashed away in the Louisiana state crime laboratory are the pieces of a puzzle no one has put together: DNA samples from more than 800 people whose remains were discovered after Hurricane Katrina and genetic samples submitted by more than 500 families searching for their loved ones.

Determining whether any of them match is a relatively straightforward task. Paying for the work has not been.

In an example of the bureaucracy that has dogged the government's storm response, it has taken state and federal officials until now -- 11 weeks after Katrina -- to figure out how to get the money to hire a contractor to do the testing.

On Tuesday, Louisiana received assurances that the matching process would begin soon.

"I need it done right now," said Dr. Louis Cataldie, Louisiana's medical examiner and one of the officials in charge of identifying Katrina victims. "I'm playing catch-up, and I don't like playing catch-up when I've got families at stake."

So far, 1,076 bodies have been recovered in Louisiana. As of Monday, officials had identified 358. In most of the remaining cases, authorities have established tentative identifications.

"We have a relatively solid idea as to who they are," Cataldie said.

But in about 140 of the toughest cases, officials have no leads. The bodies were so badly decomposed by the time they reached the morgue that DNA testing is the only way to identify them.

The tests could go a long way toward putting families' minds at ease, Cataldie said. They also could help the state, by process of elimination, determine how many victims were swept into the Gulf of Mexico or buried forever in the marshes south of New Orleans. Once bodies at the central morgue in St. Gabriel, La., are identified, the state can begin to assess the missing-person reports, which number more than 4,000.

"There are people who are lost," Cataldie said. "There are people who were washed out. And we won't find them."

An estimate of the cost of the DNA testing was not available Tuesday.

The state crime lab in Baton Rouge initially was responsible for matching the two DNA databases. But the storm left Louisiana strapped for cash, and last month officials asked the Federal Emergency Management Agency to pay for the tests, FEMA spokeswoman Nicol Andrews said.

As it turned out, it was not easy for FEMA to do.

Many of the agency's responses to the storm have been governed by the Stafford Act, a federal law that kicks in when a state requests a presidential emergency declaration. Under the act, Andrews said, FEMA can provide certain forms of assistance only through reimbursement. That was true in the case of the DNA testing, but "the state is in such a crunch they can't pay for the contracts outright," Andrews said.

Only in recent days were government lawyers able to come up with a solution: routing the funding request through the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which has the legal ability to pay for it.

"We understand that families would like some closure," Andrews said.

Don Moreau, chief of operations for the East Baton Rouge Parish coroner, said his office had processed 95 bodies. Most were turned over to displaced relatives living in the Baton Rouge area, he said. Twenty-four were sent to the morgue in St. Gabriel.

"Families are very frustrated," he said. "But if FEMA's going to pay for it, FEMA's rules come into play."

That realization, however, doesn't make things easier for those who lost relatives to Katrina.

Marcelyn Puig, 57, of Chalmette, La., submitted a DNA sample two months ago in an effort to retrieve the body of her father. Edward Dugas, 80, died at New Orleans' Methodist Hospital during the storm.

Puig learned weeks ago that her father's body -- tattooed with his wife's name, Olga, and a rose -- had been identified at the hospital and taken to the central morgue. But she was unable to persuade officials to release the body to her.

"He sat there without anything being done for I don't know how long," Puig said. Dugas' remains were released Oct. 31, she said, because a family friend's husband was doing autopsies there.

"He actually walked through the morgue until he found my father's body and pushed his name to the top so that he could be released to the family," Puig said.

Her father will be buried Thursday morning in New Orleans.

"This has been one of the hardest things we've had to deal with," she said. "You really have to fight to get things to happen. If we hadn't, I think my father would still be at the morgue. I feel sorry for the people who are still looking for their loved ones."

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Times researcher Lianne Hart in Houston contributed to this report.

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