Two tiny children with big eyes stare dolefully into the camera, their identities blown away by Hurricane Katrina.
The children, both about 2, couldn’t give workers their names or explain what happened when they were finally rescued along with hundreds of other New Orleans refugees along the Interstate 10 causeway leading out of the beleaguered city.
Medical workers do know who 5-month-old Jordan Barnes is since his medical records were retained in the evacuation of New Orleans’ University Hospital. But nobody knows where Jordon’s mother is, or whether she survives.
And teenage brother and sister Brandon and Ashley Rockwood had no trouble identifying themselves to rescue workers when they were plucked by helicopter from a New Orleans rooftop. What they don’t know is the location of their family.
Hundreds of such reports have already poured into the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children as federal authorities face the intimidating task of reuniting thousands of families swept apart by one of the worst natural disasters in U.S. history.
“This is daunting. It’s going to take some time,” said Ernie Allen, president of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. “These kids are not missing in the traditional sense. The key to this is communication.”
The Justice Department has asked the center, funded by Congress and headquartered in this Washington suburb, to coordinate attempts to locate missing victims of Hurricane Katrina throughout Mississippi, Louisiana, and Alabama.
The center has established a new telephone hotline at 1-888-544-5475 dedicated to help storm victims. Photographs and descriptions of lost or separated children are being posted as quickly as possible at www.missingkids.com.
The center has already had some successes.
An investigator from it’s Team Adam project _ which seeks to solve long-standing cases of missing children _ found seven children who had all lost their families when they were hoisted from rooftops and flown to an evacuation center at Baton Rouge, La.
“The people at the shelter had no idea whether the parents were alive or dead,” Allen said.
One of the lost girls, who was 2, could tell authorities only that her name was “Gabby.” But that was enough information for Stacie Dotson, a forensic identification specialist in the center’s special case unit, to match her description to the missing child file of Gabrielle Alexander. The child was flown to San Antonio Airport where she was reunited with her mother, Marcelina Alexander, on Sunday.
“This is good stuff,” exclaimed national center spokeswoman Tina Schwartz.
The national center hopes to post hundreds of photographs to help reunite families. The project began at noon Monday with the posting of photographs of 18 children from Louisiana.
“What our people are hearing in the shelters is that folks are afraid to sleep because they’re afraid a picture of their loved ones will be posted on the shelter’s bulletin board and they don’t want to miss it,” Allen said.
Later, the Justice Department hopes the national center will help identify what may be hundreds of unknown bodies gathered along the Gulf Coast.
“We’ll be using our forensic tools, imaging technology and our artists to help with the unidentified bodies,” Allen said. “Our fear is that, as the waters decline, there are going to be thousands.”