October 7, 2005

Families May Find Hurricane Dead in New Orleans

BATON ROUGE, Louisiana -- Since federal and state search missions have been called off, it is families returning home who may discover the dead bodies that Hurricane Katrina left behind in New Orleans.

"It looks like they are leaving the citizens to go into their homes and find their loved ones themselves," New Orleans' coroner Dr. Frank Minyard told reporters on Thursday.

Katrina ruined much of the New Orleans area in late August and has killed 988 people in Louisiana. The death toll rises to some 1,200 people when other states are included.

In mid-September, Louisiana hired Kenyon International Emergency Services at a cost of almost $119,000 a day to recover, document and handle the bodies of Katrina victims over the course of two months.

But the state halted searches even in New Orleans' worst-hit neighborhood, the mostly poor and black Lower Ninth Ward, which is still off-limits to residents.

If people find bodies, they are told to call the police. Minyard said the coroner's office still has a refrigerator truck acting as a morgue outside the city convention center.

"Kenyon people will transport the bodies, so they're still working, but they're not going door to door," Minyard said.

The coroner's office has done about 300 autopsies and has 300 more pending. Autopsies are only done in cases where the bodies show evidence of trauma.

Most of the autopsies show that people died of natural causes such as heart attacks, strokes and lung-related diseases, probably exacerbated by stress related to the hurricane, Minyard said.

He has also seen up to 30 people who drowned and eight gunshot-related deaths, which he said could be homicides, suicides or accidents. One of Minyard's friends killed himself by drinking Freon after visiting his devastated home.


The state medical examiner's office said 73 bodies had been released to loved ones for burial and another 60 would be released by the end of the day on Friday.

Dr. Louis Cataldie, the Louisiana medical examiner, said this pace was "horribly slow" and partly blamed poor communications with the family call center, where people have reported missing persons.

In fact, the makeshift New Orleans coroner's office near Baton Rouge just got a trailer with a phone hookup on Monday, more than a month after Katrina hit, Minyard said.

Another hindrance was an order from the state attorney general to treat certain hospitals and nursing homes as potential crime scenes.

Some bodies may never be recovered.

"We feel that we may have lost people into the river, into the marshes and into the Gulf. There's probably no way that we're going to be able to find those folks," Cataldie said.

Under state law, people can only be declared dead after being deemed missing for two years. Cataldie said he hopes that time period can be shortened because it bars survivors from getting insurance and other benefits.

Of the 747 people whose bodies had been processed by the morgue by several days ago, 41 percent were black and 35 percent were white, although no race information was given in 23 percent of cases.