NEW ORLEANS – They lie in silvery airtight caskets in a rented warehouse near the Superdome or in black body bags stacked in a refrigerated truck behind an abandoned funeral-home-turned-morgue.
Nearly a year after Hurricane Katrina, 49 of the storm's 1,300-plus victims in Louisiana are stuck in a kind of purgatory, with no final resting place, because their identities are still a mystery.
The anonymous souls died undignified deaths, their bodies left in muddy water for days or buried in rubble for months. Many died in the flood-leveled Ninth Ward.
Not much else is known about them. Many had no clothing or ID, and their bodies were bloated from exposure or reduced to skeletons before medical examiners could begin looking for clues.
The nameless dead wait for medical records, dental charts or DNA analysis — anything that might tell the world who they are.
"We're not going to give up," said Dr. Louis Cataldie, Louisiana medical examiner. Cataldie said authorities will keep trying until they have exhausted all possibilities; New Orleans Coroner Dr. Frank Minyard has set no deadline on the task.
Altogether, local, state and federal officials identified more than 1,300 people found dead in Louisiana after Katrina struck on Aug. 29. (The official Louisiana death toll is close to 1,600, but the number includes nearly 300 who died outside the state shortly after fleeing the storm.)
The nameless dead include 24 victims whose bodies were found in sweeps done by New Orleans firefighters and cadaver dogs from March through June. Minyard said those remains, now housed in a trailer behind a funeral home converted to the city morgue, were reduced to skeletons by the time they were discovered.
The 25 others were among the 206 turned over to local authorities in April by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Those bodies are in a warehouse along a freeway.
Investigators often had scant clues to the identities of the storm's victims. The locations where bodies were discovered meant little, because entire houses had drifted hundreds of yards. Other bodies were gathered up from freeway overpasses or other dry ground after they had been dropped off by searchers or passers-by.
Medical and dental records were used to identify many of the dead — that is, when doctors and records scattered by the storm could be found. Others were identified via DNA, using personal items such as toothbrushes, or genetic material swabbed from the mouths of relatives.
More than 1,000 such swabs were collected from people who feared they lost loved ones in the storm, and the state crime lab is still running DNA comparisons on the dead. But those samples have yet to yield the identities of the final 49.
Investigators have not been able to find any usable personal items for some of the 49.
It is possible also that the relatives who provided DNA were not genetically close enough to the victims to establish a match. Other victims may have had no living relatives. Or perhaps they were estranged from those who could provide a scientific clue to their identity.
Minyard, the New Orleans coroner for 32 years, said he hopes to provide a final resting place, if not a name, to all the storm victims. A memorial should be built, a quiet meditative place with a burial site or mausoleum, he said.
New Orleans is, after all, a city that celebrates its dead, with its elaborate mausoleums and its wailing jazz funerals.
"You can't say you celebrate this tragedy, but you celebrate this person's life," Minyard said. Even without a name, "it's a New Orleanian life. This is what we do."