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Turning to Grimmest Task

Times Staff Writer

Search teams wearing white protective suits removed 13 corpses from a nursing home on the outskirts of the city Saturday, as federal and Louisiana state officials said that the focus of the massive hurricane relief effort was shifting from rescuing survivors to recovering bodies.

But the efforts to ramp up the recovery work were accompanied by complaints of local officials and gruesome scenes across the city that suggest the body-collection effort is beset by many of the same breakdowns that have characterized almost every aspect of the government’s response to the disaster.

Officials at the Federal Emergency Management Agency said they had summoned additional body-recovery teams to New Orleans to speed up the grim task of collecting corpses, which have decomposed so badly in the 13 days since the hurricane that most can’t be identified by physical appearance alone.

And state officials said that they had reached a turning point this week in their relief efforts.

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“The resources of the state to date have been on getting the living out of New Orleans,” said Bob Johannessen, a spokesman for the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals. “It is changing to recovering those who perished.”

Dr. Bryan Bertucci, the coroner in St. Bernard Parish, east of downtown, expressed frustration Saturday that it had taken six days to remove 26 bodies from St. Rita’s Nursing Home in his parish.

Of those, 13 were taken out Saturday, and officials said that as many as six corpses remained trapped in the building. A federal search team had arrived at the facility Monday and removed four bodies, but never returned, he said. The work resumed Friday when a company contracted by FEMA hauled the corpses out of St. Rita’s.

“The DMORT team came for one day, and I kept waiting for them to come back,” Bertucci said, using an acronym for Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Teams, the formal name of the crews deployed by FEMA to recover corpses from disaster sites. After emerging from the nursing home Saturday afternoon, Bertucci described a nightmarish scene inside.

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The bodies had become so decayed and bloated that he could not identify any of the victims, even though some had been longtime patients in his private medical practice.

“I could see the names” on signs posted outside the rooms or over patients’ beds, he said. “But I couldn’t recognize them.”

The supervisor of one recovery team working in New Orleans said that FEMA’s body-recovery efforts had been hampered by breakdowns in leadership and planning. Speaking on condition of anonymity, he said that the first DMORT team to arrive in Louisiana took days to get organized in Baton Rouge before deploying to New Orleans, and that it didn’t have clear instructions when it arrived.

Even as the floodwater receded, he said, some crew members were not used in searches.

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“They were sitting there with no plan, no guidance from above,” he said.

FEMA officials disputed such criticism. “We’re doing all we can do to facilitate the recovery of the deceased from the city,” said Ricardo Zuniga, a FEMA spokesman.

Zuniga said one DMORT team and other recovery workers had been working around the clock for the better part of a week recovering bodies, and that a second team of emergency and medical workers from Ohio was expected to arrive soon.

He confirmed that FEMA had contracted with a Houston-based disaster response company, Kenyon International, to accelerate the recovery work, but said he did not know the size or scope of the contract. A Kenyon spokesperson could not be reached for comment.

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Zuniga said that, unlike rescue crews, body-recovery teams have been waiting for water to recede before entering neighborhoods to pull out corpses trapped in homes. Now that some sections of New Orleans are dry, crews are beginning to make their way across the city.

“We’re going to go block by block, street by street, house by house, room by room,” he said, adding that the agency had not projected how long it might take to finish clearing corpses from the city.

Authorities have been backing away from early estimates that as many as 10,000 people might have died in the disaster. But officials still believe the number will be well into the hundreds, if not thousands. Louisiana officials Saturday raised the official count of those killed in their state to 154.

The recovery process is one of the most closely guarded aspects of the relief effort. Federal officials had refused media requests to observe the work of recovery teams, but the government said Saturday it would allow access. Officials denied access to a morgue near Baton Rouge where most of the bodies are being taken.

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They have provided basic descriptions of the process, however, saying that in addition to recovering bodies, crews are collecting documents and other materials that may help identify victims. At the morgue facility, dentists, coroners, pathologists and other experts are using X-rays, fingerprints and other techniques to identify victims before their families are notified.

Some family members aren’t waiting. The supervisor of a California-based fire rescue crew combing still-flooded neighborhoods east of New Orleans this week said a man had stopped by Thursday to ask whether they could search for his parents. When crews reached the address the man gave, they found the man’s parents dead in the attic.

Such scenes are being replayed dozens of times a day across New Orleans, but few have been as grisly as that at St. Rita’s Nursing Home, where recovery crews from Kenyon International continued their search for trapped bodies until late Saturday afternoon.

White vans were lined up along the road in front of the single-story, tin-roofed building to transport bagged bodies. Soldiers guarded checkpoints set up on either side of the facility, stopping all but emergency traffic from coming within several hundred yards of the nursing home or recovery crews.

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Bertucci, the parish coroner, said in an interview that he had talked with the owners of the nursing home, a couple whom he identified as Sal and Mabel Mangano, several times as Hurricane Katrina approached.

He said the Manganos had planned to evacuate but cited problems, including some patients’ physical inability to ride in the buses that were being used to transport people.

In a final conversation with the Manganos at 2 p.m. on the Saturday before the hurricane hit, Bertucci said, the couple indicated that they had decided not to evacuate the home’s residents, saying they had five nurses in the facility and the permission of the residents’ families to keep them in place.

Days later, the home was under at least 7 feet of water. As crews emerged from the structure Saturday, Bertucci said some deceased residents were still in their beds or wheelchairs, others in hallways. Most were between 70 and 90 years old.

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The Manganos were not in the nursing home when the hurricane hit, Bertucci said, adding that he had had been told they were now in Texas. The Times could not independently verify Bertucci’s account, and the couple could not be reached for comment.

Serving as coroner in St. Bernard Parish ordinarily involves performing autopsies on two or three residents a month, he said. Now he is recovering bodies by the dozens.

“You have to do this,” he said. “You have to have closure.”


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