- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 29, 2006

They are among the last victims of Hurricane Katrina, unknown but not abandoned: 70 nameless bodies recovered from floodwaters and debris are being tended by volunteer geneticists determined to identify them through DNA testing.

It is methodology reluctantly honed after the September 11 attacks.

“Pulling together the infrastructure — from experts in various disciplines and from medical centers around the country — is a skill forensics experts gleaned from 9/11. Most of us hoped it was a once-in-a-lifetime event, but sadly, it was not,” said Joan Bailey-Wilson, a statistical geneticist at the National Institutes of Health who helped New York coroners identify World Trade Center victims in 2001.

She is coordinating the team of scientists from 30 medical institutions eager to help on the Gulf Coast.

More than 1,600 people are known to have been killed in Louisiana and Mississippi as a result of Hurricane Katrina, which slammed ashore along the Gulf Coast seven months ago. Most of those bodies have been returned to their families, but 2,000 people are still listed as missing.

The difficult task of identifying bodies bears testimony to the power of the storm. Personal effects were washed away or contaminated, and dental and medical records are gone.

The circumstances present a stark challenge for geneticists who must match unique patterns of genetic traits taken from DNA samples found in blood, combs or toothbrushes with the patterns of surviving family members.

First, they must find the families. Slowly, displaced relatives have been located by the Louisiana State Police, the Louisiana Family Assistance Center and volunteers. Survivors are offering DNA samples — simple mouth swabs — hoping they will match DNA from a recovered body.

Some remains, the scientists say, were only recently pulled from debris.

“One of the lessons learned from 9/11 was that talking to the families about the missing is skilled detective work,” said Johns Hopkins genetic epidemiologist Elizabeth Pugh, who assisted New York officials five years ago and is helping state police ensure accurate matches.

Their work has just begun.

“Just knowing the grief these families are going through is what motivates me,” said geneticist Nicole Johnson, who volunteered in Louisiana to reconstruct the family trees “of those presumed lost.”

The first three geneticists arrived in Baton Rouge in mid-March with more arriving in June. Though computer-assisted DNA matches can speed the process, creating a genetic portrait of a family is “a sensitive and time-consuming task,” Mrs. Bailey-Wilson said.

She continues to field hundreds of calls from geneticists and other medical personnel offering help. The effort, she said, “is bridging the gap between genetic and forensic medicine to help make our country better prepared to deal with a massive disaster.”

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