YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


Families Lose Loved Ones Again -- in a Bureaucratic Mire

October 02, 2005|David Zucchino and Nicholas Riccardi | Times Staff Writers

BATON ROUGE, La. — When he could finally leave his post guarding a nuclear power plant after Hurricane Katrina struck, Richard George Reysack III sped east of New Orleans to the flooded home of his 80-year-old father. Slogging through the muck, he found his father's corpse face-down in the hallway.

As devastating as that discovery was, at least Reysack had the body. Then even that was taken away. The authorities who moved the corpse to a temporary morgue not only won't return it to Reysack for burial, he said, they won't even confirm that they have it.

Reysack's family published an obituary and held a memorial service -- all without a body.

"My family has had to endure that memorial service knowing Lord knows when we'll get my father's body ... and put this behind us," Reysack said.

A month after Katrina upended the lives of hundreds of thousands, families of the dead have been traumatized again by the ordeal of trying to pry their loved ones' bodies from a bureaucratic quagmire. They say they have spent weeks being rebuffed or ignored by state and federal officials at a massive temporary morgue that houses hundreds of decomposed corpses.

Many of those bodies don't have names, the remains so badly damaged by floodwater that fingerprints and other methods of identification are useless. But although authorities have been provided with ample information to identify dozens of corpses, they are still holding onto them -- to the dismay of family members scattered across the country.

The state official in charge of the morgue, Dr. Louis Cataldie, said through a spokesman that he was concerned about the flow of information from the morgue. At a news conference here last week, he acknowledged that many families were suffering.

"These are horrible times," Cataldie said.

Even funeral home directors, who routinely retrieve bodies from authorities, say they have been turned away at the heavily guarded morgue in St. Gabriel, La.

Among the remains authorities refuse to release are those of people who had died before Katrina struck Aug. 29, and were transferred after floodwater threatened the New Orleans morgue.

"It's inefficient and inept out there -- it's beyond incompetence," said William Bagnell, a funeral director who said he had been refused access to four bodies at the morgue even though officials faxed him forms inviting him to pick up the remains.

For funeral directors and ordinary citizens alike, the grief of losing a relative has been compounded by the agonizing search for their remains.

Malcolm Gibson, a New Orleans funeral director, said he has tried for more than two weeks to recover the body of his 83-year-old uncle, who died in his home during the storm and whose remains were delivered to the morgue by state police. But authorities would not confirm that they even had the body, he said.

Earline Eleby Coleman drove from Houston on Sept. 5 to recover the body of her 78-year-old mother, who died at the New Orleans convention center in the arms of another family member. She was told she had to wait for confirmation that the body was even at the morgue. She is still waiting.

Wayne Dean Ryburn spent 10 days chasing his elderly mother's corpse from hospitals to morgues to parish coroner's offices. He finally recovered it from St. Gabriel in rural Louisiana with the help of his sister, a registered nurse who had attended to the dying woman.

And Cal Johnson, a New Orleans funeral director, said he had faxed information to the morgue about an employee, a 75-year-old embalmer who died in his New Orleans home during the hurricane. But even though police took the body to the morgue, Johnson said, he was told that it could not be located.

"I'm past the angry stage," said Reysack, who found his father's body Sept. 11 but has been unable to locate it since officials moved it to the temporary morgue. "It's total loss and total frustration, as if you've got your hands tied and the answer is right there in front of you but you can't get it."

Cataldie, a former medical examiner, acknowledged that identifying and releasing bodies had been painfully slow. Of more than 800 bodies delivered to the St. Gabriel morgue, he said, 32 have been positively identified and 340 have been tentatively identified.

The official death toll in Louisiana from Hurricane Katrina is 932, and more bodies continue to be found.

Because many bodies were not collected for days or weeks, they decomposed in the heat and floodwater, Cataldie said. As a result, some victims will never be identified and their cause of death never known, he said.

Forensic specialists supervised by the Federal Emergency Management Agency are taking X-rays, fingerprints and DNA samples of the corpses, but notifying next-of-kin is being handled by state officials. Their greatest fear is misidentifying a corpse in the deluge of bodies.

Los Angeles Times Articles