November 12, 2005

A search for scattered dead in Louisiana

By Kevin Krolicki

BELLE CHASSE, Louisiana (Reuters) - In Plaquemines Parish,
south of New Orleans, the living mostly escaped Hurricane
Katrina. Those already dead and buried were not so lucky.

Only three deaths were recorded here when the eye of the
storm tore up the slip of land that follows the last bend of
the Mississippi River as it spills into the Gulf of Mexico.

But more than two months later, local officials are still
trying to identify dozens of concrete crypts, coffins, and
bodies displaced by Katrina's high winds and water.

In some cases, now-anonymous remains lie out near grave
sites where they have been bagged in black plastic, tagged with
electrical tape and marked with exact geographic coordinates to
await families to help with identifications.

Other coffins have been sealed up with the same blue tarps
used to patch rooftops all over the storm-damaged Gulf Coast.

"I've had coffins in the tops of trees that I've had to
take out with backhoes. I've had coffins in living rooms," said
parish Councilman Mike Mudge, a plain-spoken former police
detective who has made restoring the dead to their rightful
resting places a personal quest.

"For the first month after the storm, I would come in here
and our phones were ringing nonstop with coffin sightings."

The 15 cemeteries of the parish were ripped up by Katrina,
which floated coffins from the above-ground crypts favored
because of the high water table and lack of real soil.

In some cases, 3,000-pound (1,360-kg) crypts were flung
from one bank to the Mississippi to the other by the high

In others, Mudge said, "disenfranchised coffins" were found
floating in backwaters where work crews marked their locations
with long poles and whatever colorful debris they could find at
hand: a plastic pumpkin or a statue of one of the saints.

The first priority was to get the dead away from roadways
and the homes that some of the 24,000 residents -- many of them
in shipping, fishing and oil -- are now returning to repair.

Said Mudge, "Looking at a coffin in a cemetery is not as
horrifying as looking at a coffin where your coffee table used
to be."

Parish President Benny Rousselle said he decided early that
"no bodies would leave the parish" and that all the recovery
work would be done locally, without federal involvement.

Rousselle put Mudge in charge of recovery efforts,
reinforcing his crew with national guard troops and outfitting
them with GPS tracking devices and airboats.


The Federal Emergency Management Agency, Mudge said, had
proposed a costly scheme to "de-coffin and re-coffin" the
bodies and then ship them in refrigerated trucks to a joint
morgue to await DNA testing by relatives.

"I said: 'Bud, this ain't baloney. You don't keep it on ice
because you're going to need it tomorrow. These people have
been dead for years,"' Mudge said of his talk with FEMA.

About 25 of the coffins displaced from the storm had been
identified, Mudge said, and the thought of scattered dead
bothers him.

"There's a saying, 'Rest in peace,' but ain't nothing
restful," he said. "Now when they say dust to dust, that's an
accurate statement."

At Tropical Bend Cemetery in Empire, Janice Andry, 52, has
brought her 73-year-old mother, Vivian Taylor, to check on the
grave sites of their extended family.

The plot for Andry's father, brother and sister is mostly
undisturbed, although obscured by the kitchen and debris of a
shredded house blown into the cemetery.

Her cousin, Poochie, is missing. Another female relative
has also "taken a walk," she said, smiling.

Taylor, a regular at Mt. Olive Baptist Church, sees the
destruction as evidence "that we are living in the end times."

Her daughter tries to cheer her, reminding her what she had
said about the missing relative. "She said she couldn't wait to
get up to the bright glory. She heard all that rumbling and
thought it was time."