- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 17, 2005

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Nearly three months after Hurricane Katrina, 321 bodies lie nameless and unclaimed in a makeshift Louisiana morgue. An additional 200 have been identified, but no one can locate the families among refugees scattered across the nation.

Of those 300-plus unidentified bodies, 140 pose a challenge for Dr. Louis Cataldie like he’s never encountered before. The bodies defy the normal rules for forensic identification: They carried no ID and have no fingerprints, recognizable features or marks.

Many of them were found in fields or streets with no link to a house or address. In some cases animals damaged the bodies. In every case, there was severe decomposition.

They haunt Dr. Cataldie, the former coroner now in charge of the special morgue in St. Gabriel built for victims of the killer storm. The facility has examined 883 bodies since the storm struck Aug. 29; parish coroners have handled the rest of the dead.

Figures released in recent days peg the Louisiana death toll at 1,076, up two from last week. The search for bodies was called off Oct. 3, but those returning to destroyed homes continue to find the dead.

Leila Haydel recently went to the home of 93-year-old Olga Northon, a family friend, even though the house had been checked. She and her husband found the decaying body of the elderly woman in the living room.

“I can’t tell you how horrible it was to find just the sweetest lady in the world in that situation,” Mrs. Haydel said.

Of the 321 nameless bodies at St. Gabriel, 181 could possibly be identified by dental records or other traditional means — if the records were available. The other 140 are so severely decomposed it will take DNA testing to determine their identity. Like much of everything else at the morgue, getting DNA testing set up has been slow and frustrating.

“DNA is our weapon of last resort, and I’m at that point,” Dr. Cataldie said.

“If it was a plane crash, you’d have a list of the passengers and you’d start calling families to locate the next of kin,” said Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals spokesman Bob Johannessen. “In this case, the next of kin may be displaced as well. They may have moved several times since the hurricane … and tracing them is very difficult.”

That convoluted exodus has also stymied people trying to track down missing family members — perhaps more than 4,000 based on Katrina-related Internet postings.

In particular, 1,030 children remain listed as missing with the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children.

“Some — a very small percentage, we believe — did not survive the storm,” said center president Ernie Allen. “A larger number are kids who are probably with mom or dad or grandma, but other family members don’t know where they are. We think they’re safe, they just haven’t been in touch with the rest of the family yet.”

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