NEW ORLEANS – Nearly three months after Hurricane Katrina swept through south Louisiana, 321 bodies lie nameless and unclaimed in a makeshift morgue. Another 200 have been identified, but no one can locate the families among refugees scattered across the nation.
Of those 300-plus unidentified bodies, 140 pose a challenge for Dr. Louis Cataldie like he's never encountered before. The bodies defy the normal rules for forensic identification. They carried no ID and have no fingerprints, no recognizable features or marks.
Many of them were found in fields or streets with no link to a house or address. In some cases animals damaged the bodies. In every case there was severe decomposition.
They haunt Cataldie, the former coroner now in charge of the special morgue in St. Gabriel built for victims of the killer storm. The facility has examined 883 bodies since the storm struck Aug. 29; parish coroners have handled the rest of the dead.
Figures released in recent days peg the Louisiana death toll at 1,076, up two from last week. In Mississippi, Katrina killed another 228 people.
"I won't see light at the end of the tunnel until I see the families for these people found," said Cataldie, head of Louisiana's Katrina body recovery and identification efforts. "And we're not even close to seeing that."
In Louisiana, the search for bodies was called off Oct. 3, but emergency workers and residents returning to destroyed homes continue to find the dead. In heavily hit St. Bernard Parish, south of New Orleans, authorities are using helicopters in a last-ditch try to find bodies in marshes.
Leila Haydel recently went to the home of 93-year-old Olga Northon, a family friend, even though the house had been checked. She and her husband found the decaying body of the elderly woman in the living room.
"I can't tell you how horrible it was to find just the sweetest lady in the world in that situation," Haydel said.
Of the 321 nameless bodies at St. Gabriel, located between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, 181 could possibly be identified by dental records or other traditional means — if the records were available.
The other 140, however, are so severely decomposed it will take DNA testing to determine their identity. Like much of everything else at the morgue, however, getting DNA testing set up has been slow and frustrating.
Initially, the Louisiana State Police lab was going to handle DNA tests, but FEMA twice refused funding because of bureaucratic rules that limit how much and who the agency can pay. FEMA and Cataldie hope they've solved the issue by having the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services handle the testing, though it hasn't started.
"DNA is our weapon of last resort," Cataldie said. "And I'm at that point."
DNA tests also could help determine how many victims are lost forever — those washed into the Gulf of Mexico or buried in the marshes or under debris.
"There are lost people out there that will never be accounted for," Cataldie said. "But we can determine if they're here or not."
Callers to the Find Family National Call Center at 1-866-326-9393 can provide information aimed at matching them to bodies as they're identified. The center has also asked callers to provide DNA samples.
"I'm told 400 to 500 people have come in and given DNA samples, but we've had no way of matching them," Cataldie said.
Even identifying the bodies doesn't guarantee getting them to families. Roughly 155 bodies that have been identified have gone unclaimed. Nearly 360 bodies have been released from St. Gabriel to families. Parish coroners are handling identification and arrangements for another 200 bodies.
"If it was a plane crash, you'd have a list of the passengers and you'd start calling families to locate the next of kin," said Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals spokesman Bob Johannessen. "In this case, the next of kin may be displaced as well. They may have moved several times since the hurricane — from Louisiana to a shelter, to another shelter to an apartment or trailer — and tracing them is very difficult."
That convoluted exodus has also stymied people trying to track down missing family members — perhaps more than 4,000 based on Katrina-related Internet postings.
In particular, 1,030 children remain listed as missing with the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children.
"Some — a very small percentage, we believe — did not survive the storm," said center president Ernie Allen. "A larger number are kids who are probably with mom or dad or grandma, but other family members don't know where they are. We think they're safe, they just haven't been in touch with the rest of the family yet."
"It's very frustrating," said Joe Bridges of Foley, Ala., who has one of the 4,679 postings on Yahoo looking for Katrina victims. He's searching for his 77-year-old grandmother, Viola Eaton.
"I don't know if she's alive or dead," Bridges said. "I miss her. I miss her voice. I worry all the time."