- The Washington Times - Friday, January 20, 2006

HARLINGEN, Texas (AP) — For nearly four months, Eldo Allen tried to track down his son, whose Biloxi, Miss., beachfront apartment was swallowed by Hurricane Katrina’s surge last August.

He talked to the Red Cross, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and even the Social Security Administration. None could account for John David Allen, a 48-year-old construction worker, or his wife, Susan, 53.

Mr. Allen, at the urging of a FEMA official, finally called the Harrison County, Miss., Coroner’s Office, which immediately told him neither had survived, the office had identified the victims two months earlier but had not been able to locate the next of kin.

“So they didn’t check. They didn’t talk with FEMA, FEMA didn’t talk with them and the Red Cross didn’t talk to either,” Mr. Allen said.

The couple’s bodies had been cremated and were about to be “disposed of” after going so long unclaimed.

“Nobody talked to nobody,” Mr. Allen said, his voice wrapped in grief. “That’s why we just was almost too late.”

About 18,000 people were reported lost in the aftermath of the 2005 Gulf Coast hurricanes; more than 4,200 are still reported missing in some fashion. The unprecedented number of displaced people prompted the federal government to expand the definition of missing to mean just about anyone who had a relative unable to locate them.

FEMA spokesman Butch Kinerney said it is the local medical examiner’s job to call the next of kin. And when the coroner can’t find next of kin? He said there might be “some discussion in the future of ensuring that the local coroner has the ability to do that.”

“We grieve with this family,” he said.

Tom Corl, director of international family-tracing services for the American Red Cross, said the relief agency had offered an online service to help loved ones locate each other — more than 340,000 people had signed on — but had never gotten involved with the storm fatalities.

“We tried not to let any information about deceased parties be posted simply because we didn’t know if it was verifiable,” he said.

The Harrison County coroner did not return repeated calls for comment.

John Allen was identified through his fingerprints, which matched prints taken decades earlier when he served in the Air Force. Then it was easy to identify Susan Allen.

Susan Allen was estranged from her family in Wisconsin, but the Allens say someone must care. Mr. Allen yearned to tell them that she finally was cared for in death, that “she didn’t just get ‘disposed of.’ That’s such a terrible word, ‘disposed of.’ ”

On Wednesday, friends joined the Allens as they buried a coffin containing two ash-filled urns.

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