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Hurricane Dead Stuck in a Logistical Limbo

At the official morgue, frustrations abound. But one Louisiana coroner makes progress.

October 10, 2005|David Zucchino and Nicholas Riccardi | Times Staff Writers

HARVEY, La. — Nine people dead of carbon monoxide poisoning. Two people electrocuted, five suicides, three drug overdoses, two drownings and one teenage boy struck and killed by a car.

That is the stark accounting of the corpses brought to the Jefferson Parish morgue run here by Dr. Robert E. Treuting, the only coroner in the New Orleans metropolitan area with an operational morgue in the days and weeks after Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Louisiana coast.

Another 100 corpses are those of elderly patients from parish nursing homes and hospitals who died of existing maladies exacerbated by the trauma of trying to flee the storm.

Unlike other Louisiana coroners working at a temporary morgue in the hamlet of St. Gabriel, about 80 miles northwest, Treuting and his staff have been able to identify all 122 Jefferson Parish storm victims -- 22 unnatural deaths and 100 natural.

But Treuting's morgue also has encountered the same frustrations and limitations that plague the larger St. Gabriel operation -- difficulties in locating relatives, determining the manner and cause of death, and figuring out precisely where and when a victim died.

"We don't have a very good handle on the details," Treuting said inside his spacious, modern office in this New Orleans suburb. "We'll probably never know everything we need to know about some of these people."

The failure of authorities to quickly and efficiently reunite survivors with the remains of their loved ones is a painful legacy of Hurricane Katrina.

At the St. Gabriel operation, only 73 of the 1,003 Louisiana victims counted by the state as of Friday have been identified, with another 360 tentatively identified. Only a handful of bodies have been returned to next of kin for burial.

Nor have all the deaths from Jefferson Parish been included in the overall state toll, which lists just 30 parish deaths from the storm. Dr. Louis Cataldie, a former coroner who is the medical director for emergency response at St. Gabriel, said he could not explain the discrepancy.

Another 53 evacuees from the New Orleans area who died in Texas are not included in the state total. Those bodies are being sent to St. Gabriel, officials said, and will be added to the total if their deaths are confirmed as Katrina-related.

Cataldie said the death toll would continue to fluctuate as more bodies were found and double countings were eliminated. He said an unknown number of bodies were washed into marshes or the Gulf of Mexico and probably never would be recovered.

Victims from the three hardest-hit parishes have been taken to St. Gabriel, where forensic experts working for the Federal Emergency Management Agency decontaminate, X-ray and extract DNA from the bodies while parish coroners and forensic pathologists try to identify them and locate the next of kin. The three parishes are Orleans, which encompasses New Orleans; heavily populated St. Bernard Parish east of the city; and Plaquemines Parish, a narrow 100-mile strip of bayou stretching south to the Gulf of Mexico.

In Jefferson Parish, a dense swath of suburbs with 460,000 residents on the south rim of New Orleans, Treuting said his office had been besieged by calls from people frantically trying to locate missing relatives. He said others demanded autopsies to determine the precise cause of death of their loved ones.

About half of the bodies at his morgue have been returned to the next of kin, Treuting said, and his office does not have enough information to locate relatives of other victims. Autopsies are performed only in cases where suspicions are raised.

For the 100 elderly patients, he said, detailed medical information is kept at nursing homes and hospitals, whose operations were disrupted by the storm. Jefferson Parish was not affected by the ruptured levees that flooded much of New Orleans, but high winds and heavy rains damaged thousands of homes, businesses and public facilities.

The morgue, located in a complex with its own generator, stayed open throughout the storm, Treuting said. Its investigators were able to retrieve the bodies of storm victims after being called by police or by officials at nursing homes and hospitals.

Even so, Treuting said, the circumstances surrounding the deaths of most of the 122 victims are murky. All have been classified as "storm-related," he said, even the five suicides and three drug overdoses.

Investigators were able to determine that despair over losing homes or loved ones was a factor in the suicides, he said. The drug overdoses merely coincided with the storm, he said, but are considered storm-related.

He said all 122 death certificates would carry a Hurricane Katrina notation.

And even though the manner of death for the 100 nursing home and hospital patients was natural, the cause of death for many remains undetermined, he said, pending more information from doctors and staff at those facilities.

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