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Families Lose Loved Ones Again -- in a Bureaucratic Mire

Times Staff Writers

When he could finally leave his post guarding a nuclear power plant after Hurricane Katrina struck, Richard George Reysack III sped east of New Orleans to the flooded home of his 80-year-old father. Slogging through the muck, he found his father’s corpse face-down in the hallway.

As devastating as that discovery was, at least Reysack had the body. Then even that was taken away. The authorities who moved the corpse to a temporary morgue not only won’t return it to Reysack for burial, he said, they won’t even confirm that they have it.

Reysack’s family published an obituary and held a memorial service -- all without a body.

“My family has had to endure that memorial service knowing Lord knows when we’ll get my father’s body ... and put this behind us,” Reysack said.

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A month after Katrina upended the lives of hundreds of thousands, families of the dead have been traumatized again by the ordeal of trying to pry their loved ones’ bodies from a bureaucratic quagmire. They say they have spent weeks being rebuffed or ignored by state and federal officials at a massive temporary morgue that houses hundreds of decomposed corpses.

Many of those bodies don’t have names, the remains so badly damaged by floodwater that fingerprints and other methods of identification are useless. But although authorities have been provided with ample information to identify dozens of corpses, they are still holding onto them -- to the dismay of family members scattered across the country.

The state official in charge of the morgue, Dr. Louis Cataldie, said through a spokesman that he was concerned about the flow of information from the morgue. At a news conference here last week, he acknowledged that many families were suffering.

“These are horrible times,” Cataldie said.

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Even funeral home directors, who routinely retrieve bodies from authorities, say they have been turned away at the heavily guarded morgue in St. Gabriel, La.

Among the remains authorities refuse to release are those of people who had died before Katrina struck Aug. 29, and were transferred after floodwater threatened the New Orleans morgue.

“It’s inefficient and inept out there -- it’s beyond incompetence,” said William Bagnell, a funeral director who said he had been refused access to four bodies at the morgue even though officials faxed him forms inviting him to pick up the remains.

For funeral directors and ordinary citizens alike, the grief of losing a relative has been compounded by the agonizing search for their remains.

Malcolm Gibson, a New Orleans funeral director, said he has tried for more than two weeks to recover the body of his 83-year-old uncle, who died in his home during the storm and whose remains were delivered to the morgue by state police. But authorities would not confirm that they even had the body, he said.

Earline Eleby Coleman drove from Houston on Sept. 5 to recover the body of her 78-year-old mother, who died at the New Orleans convention center in the arms of another family member. She was told she had to wait for confirmation that the body was even at the morgue. She is still waiting.

Wayne Dean Ryburn spent 10 days chasing his elderly mother’s corpse from hospitals to morgues to parish coroner’s offices. He finally recovered it from St. Gabriel in rural Louisiana with the help of his sister, a registered nurse who had attended to the dying woman.

And Cal Johnson, a New Orleans funeral director, said he had faxed information to the morgue about an employee, a 75-year-old embalmer who died in his New Orleans home during the hurricane. But even though police took the body to the morgue, Johnson said, he was told that it could not be located.

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“I’m past the angry stage,” said Reysack, who found his father’s body Sept. 11 but has been unable to locate it since officials moved it to the temporary morgue. “It’s total loss and total frustration, as if you’ve got your hands tied and the answer is right there in front of you but you can’t get it.”

Cataldie, a former medical examiner, acknowledged that identifying and releasing bodies had been painfully slow. Of more than 800 bodies delivered to the St. Gabriel morgue, he said, 32 have been positively identified and 340 have been tentatively identified.

The official death toll in Louisiana from Hurricane Katrina is 932, and more bodies continue to be found.

Because many bodies were not collected for days or weeks, they decomposed in the heat and floodwater, Cataldie said. As a result, some victims will never be identified and their cause of death never known, he said.

Forensic specialists supervised by the Federal Emergency Management Agency are taking X-rays, fingerprints and DNA samples of the corpses, but notifying next-of-kin is being handled by state officials. Their greatest fear is misidentifying a corpse in the deluge of bodies.

“I wish I could speed up the process,” Cataldie said. “But speeding up the process could contaminate the process, and I just can’t do that. And I’m sorry we have to do that in some situations to make sure the entire process is as pure as it can be. I have to be able to stand up before somebody and say I am absolutely sure.”

Bob Johannssen, a spokesman for the state Department of Health and Hospitals, said part of the problem might be that families haven’t been told to call the National Find Family Call Center (1-866-326-9393). He said the center would relay information between families and the morgue.

Several families said their frantic calls to FEMA and state officials were taken by people who were either indifferent or unable to provide any information. And even those whose loved ones’ remains have been officially identified and cleared for release said it still took weeks to get the bodies.

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Joanne Mason Sealy said her family spent three weeks trying to locate the body of her 88-year-old father, Arthur Mason, a patient at a New Orleans nursing home who died in the first chaotic days after Hurricane Katrina. The frail Alzheimer’s patient died after he was evacuated to the New Orleans airport four days after the storm.

And even though Mason wore two medical ID bracelets, it was not until three weeks later that his body was identified and released, Sealy said.

“The heartbreak of the whole thing is indescribable,” she said.

Connie White said she spent weeks not knowing whether her aunt, Ella Jones, a nursing home patient in New Orleans, was dead or alive. It was only when her family reached a nursing home worker that they were told Jones, 81, had died of “natural causes” after the hurricane. Her body, with her ID wristband, was sent to St. Gabriel but was not identified and released until last week, White said.

“I have a lot of questions that somebody is going to have to answer,” White said. “I want to know if my aunt really died of ‘natural causes.’ ”

Jones and Mason were patients at Bethany Home, a nursing facility on Esplanade Avenue in New Orleans. Sealy and White said family members of both patients offered to stay with their loved ones before the storm but were told that the facility had an evacuation plan and that the patients would be well cared for.

Officials at Bethany, which has shut down, could not be located for comment.

Ryburn said he learned four days after Katrina that his frail 83-year-old mother, Alma Ryburn, had died while being evacuated from a hospital in New Orleans to one in Alexandria, La.

Ryburn and his sister drove to Alexandria to collect the body, only to find that it had been transferred to a third hospital, and then finally to St. Gabriel. It took 10 days and the intervention of a funeral home to get the state to identify his mother’s body, Ryburn said.

“My mom went around for 10 days, all through south Louisiana,” Ryburn said. “That was not a pretty thing to go through.”

William S. Porter III, an Army veteran from Suffolk, Va., said he tried for weeks to find out what happened to his father, 75, the embalmer who worked for Cal Johnson’s funeral home. Despite pleas by family members, the elder Porter had refused to evacuate his home in the Gentilly section of New Orleans.

It was not until last Wednesday, Porter said, that he got a call from a FEMA official at St. Gabriel who told him that his father’s body might be in the morgue. The body had been recovered from Porter’s home.

The official told Porter he might have to provide a DNA cheek swab at St. Gabriel, and said he would call him back to confirm details. The call never came. Porter said his calls to FEMA numbers reached only answering machines.

Enraged, Porter flew to New Orleans on Friday, meeting with his brother, an Army staff sergeant who flew in from Ft. Sill, Okla. He said they would not leave without their father’s remains.

“It’s been a month now -- what are they waiting for?” Porter asked. “If they took my father’s body out of his house, why didn’t they just write down the address and look around for something with his name on it? It ain’t that hard.”

Johnson, the funeral director, said he had faxed documents to the morgue, including Porter’s Social Security number, but was told that no information was available.

“I’m a professional in the business, a licensed funeral director, and they won’t tell me anything,” Johnson said. “It’s ridiculous how secretive they are.”

Johnson said he also tried to recover the bodies of six clients who had died before the storm and were transferred to St. Gabriel when floodwater threatened the Orleans Parish morgue. Even though those bodies already had been identified and prepared for burial, Johnson said, the morgue was refusing to release them.

He said he had faxed the morgue death certificates for all six, along with names and phone numbers of next of kin, but was told that the names were not in the morgue database.

One of the six was Patricia Anne Otto, 74, who was vacationing in New Orleans when she died of a heart attack five days ahead of Katrina. Her brother, John Tepe, a Chicago resident, said he had spent more than a month trying without success to locate and retrieve her body.

Tepe said he had struggled to control his temper, especially when a FEMA official asked if he wanted to speak to a clergyman. “I told them I don’t need someone to assuage my grief. I need someone who can get something done.”

Bagnell, the funeral director from St. Tammany Parish north of New Orleans, said he had been trying to calm frantic families of four flood victims whose bodies were still at the morgue though officials had cleared them for release.

He said he made the 125-mile round trip to the morgue three times, carrying forms faxed to him by FEMA authorizing his funeral home to pick up the remains. He was turned away each time, he said.

“Their attitude is: It’s the family’s problem, not ours,” Bagnell said.

It’s certainly a problem for the family of Clementine Eleby. The 78-year-old woman perished at the convention center in front of one of her daughters.

When Katrina hit, another daughter, Earline Coleman, a substance abuse counselor, was trapped in Methodist Hospital downtown along with her husband, a nurse. They escaped to Houston unaware of her mother’s fate.

When she heard from her sister that their mother had died, Coleman went straight to St Gabriel, but was turned away.

“I thought, OK, they can’t help me today, but surely by the end of the week my mother’s remains will be returned.”

Now she calls every day, but she has received no information. She persuaded someone from the White House to call on her behalf Friday, but all he was told was that Clementine Eleby was not one of the 32 bodies identified so far.

“I don’t sleep at night because I know that she’s out there, and I just hope that she knows that we’re looking for her,” Coleman said.

Reysack, the nuclear plant worker, said that as Katrina approached, he and his sister implored their father to leave his house in the low-lying New Orleans suburb of Arabi.

“I know what I’m doing,” the elder Reysack told his children. “I’m not leaving my home.”

After helping recover his father’s body, Reysack filled out paperwork, provided a DNA sample and confirmed his father’s identity with the recovery team. He was told to contact FEMA to retrieve the body.

But his calls got him nowhere. He said he reached one chaplain in St. Gabriel who told him that the paperwork had been lost and that the computer did not show his father’s corpse as identified.

“My ultimate mission and purpose in life now is I want an answer,” he said. “Someone has to explain to me how they lost my father’s body.”


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