BATON ROUGE, La. – Hundreds of corpses from Hurricane Katrina (search) await identification at a makeshift morgue, with only 32 bodies released to families for burial so far — a slow pace officials consider unavoidable.
"These are horrible times, and it's extremely frustrating. I wish I could speed up the process, but speeding up the process could contaminate the process. I'm sorry about that," said Dr. Louis Cataldie, who heads the body recovery process (search) in Louisiana.
Identifying the bodies through personal items, DNA, fingerprints, dental records, pacemakers or implants has been made difficult by the poor condition of corpses left for days or weeks in contaminated water, sludge and heat, he said.
In addition, dental records in New Orleans, in many cases, are destroyed or at least inaccessible, Cataldie said. Also, animals have been feeding on the bodies, making fingerprint identification harder.
Louisiana's official death toll from Katrina rose to 896 on Wednesday. Most of the bodies have been brought to a temporary morgue set up in St. Gabriel, about 15 miles from Baton Rouge, by refrigerated trucks. More than 100 bodies remain in local parish coroners' offices.
Cataldie discounted reports that large numbers of children's bodies had been recovered. "There have been some children, but thank God, there haven't been that many," he said.
About 340 of the bodies brought to the temporary morgue so far have a "presumptive identification," meaning forensic workers believe they have matched the corpse with a missing person and have notified families in most instances. But until a match is a "positive identification," the bodies are not released to family members.
Only 32 bodies have been positively identified and released to funeral homes chosen by their families, Cataldie said.
The bodies of murder victims are sent back to the parish coroners' offices. Cataldie said only six or seven of the bodies at the St. Gabriel morgue were murder victims. They were primarily from New Orleans.
Despite reports of many beatings and throats slit at the convention center and Superdome in New Orleans, the Department of Health and Hospitals (search) said only two bodies found at those evacuation sites were believed to be murder victims. They had gunshot wounds.