Now the Real Challenge Begins

As rescuers bring the last of thousands stranded by Hurricane Katrina to safety, officials in Louisiana and Mississippi face different challenges in recovering the dead.

In Mississippi, the collection of the dead has been an ongoing operation since the day after the storm as survivors, response teams and local officials have scrabbled through wreckage in search of the living.

While the unofficial toll in Mississippi has hovered at fewer than 200 people, law enforcement officials say they expect to find many more dead as teams reach into more remote areas and begin using heavy equipment to clear piles of debris moved by storm surge. Many officials fear the loss of life along the Mississippi Gulf Coast could exceed 1,000.

In New Orleans and surrounding parishes, removal of the dead had, until Monday, largely been set aside as rescuers scrambled to get thousands of people out of flooded homes and overwhelmed shelters. In some cases, homes where bodies were known to be located were marked with paint; in other areas the dead had been tied to street signs so they could be retrieved more easily later.

Only about 100 bodies have been brought to three morgues gathering victims in Louisiana, and officials reported dozens of victims left behind in the city’s evacuated hospitals.

Around Grand Isle, La., and likely in other parts of the region, the storm also washed coffins from cemeteries and these disturbed dead also will eventually have to be identified and reburied.

Both Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco and New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin have said repeatedly they expect the death toll to be in the thousands. “It’s going to be awful and it’s going to wake the nation up again,” Nagin told NBC’s “Today” on Tuesday.

That grim estimate has prompted the Federal Emergency Management Agency to concentrate teams of mortuary workers in a warehouse in St. Gabriel, La., south of Baton Rouge. Five of the teams have been sent to Louisiana.

Each of the teams of pathologists, medical examiners, embalmers and other specialists drawn from across the country have the ability to handle up to 144 bodies a day, and Federal Emergency Management officials said the morgue has the capacity to process more than 5,000 bodies.

More than 1,200 trained mortuary workers are part of the volunteer system founded in 1992 by Syracuse, N.Y., funeral director Thomas Shepardson. “They provide these communities with the assurance that everything humanly possible is being done to recover, identify and return victims to their families,” Shepardson said of the teams in a 2001 interview. He died in 2003.

Five of the teams have also been deployed to Mississippi with a mobile morgue unit and refrigerated trucks that are supporting local coroners.

At each morgue, teams will carefully record the physical characteristics of each victim, take photographs, fingerprints, handprints and X-rays, including the teeth, as well as tissue samples that can be used for DNA testing.

Personal effects _ clothes, watches, glasses, rings, wallets, etc. _ will be itemized and stored to assist with identification. All the information will be entered on computers and downloaded to a database that can be used to match victims with those reported lost by family or friends.

At the same time, other experts will record personal information given by survivors, such as where they were last seen, what they were wearing, recent photos and their medical history, such as past broken bones or medical implants that might help identify them.

Another of the tasks facing recovery teams is to consider how people died. Dr. Louis Cataldie, medical director for emergency operations in Louisiana, said any death that investigators determine would not have occurred but for Hurricane Katrina will be attributed directly to the storm. “If you’re on a respirator at home and the electricity goes out, you are a hurricane death,” he said.

However, victims of shootings in the violence that engulfed New Orleans in the days after the storm will not be classified as hurricane deaths, but will be investigated by local coroners as criminal cases.

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(Contact Lee Bowman at BowmanL(at)