More Katrina Fatalities Could Be Found

Times Staff Writer

The discovery of two bodies in the wreckage of a neighborhood devastated by Hurricane Katrina seven months ago has served as an unsettling omen to families still searching for missing relatives.

Eight bodies have been found since March 1, and with about 1,400 people still unaccounted for, Louisiana state officials said they could not rule out the possibility of finding others.

Until recently, recovery teams were unable to retrieve bodies from the neighborhoods that were rendered uninhabitable and designated off-limits to residents.


The two bodies found Sunday in the rubble of a collapsed home in the city’s Lower 9th Ward have not been identified.

Investigators with the Orleans Parish coroner’s office, which recently took over the process of identifying and releasing the remains of Katrina victims, would not say precisely where they found the bodies or comment on their condition.

“All I can say is we picked up two bodies,” said John Gagliano, the coroner’s chief investigator. “I don’t have any more information as to the identification. We haven’t done anything with them yet.”

The hurricane left 1,287 people dead in Louisiana.

Until early March, the federal government’s Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Team was in charge of alerting families when a deceased relative had been identified, and then releasing the remains to the appropriate funeral home. That task now falls to the parish coroner.

The New Orleans Fire Department has been using dogs to sniff out human remains in targeted areas.

The state-contracted Find Family National Call Center has received 11,601 phone calls since September to report people missing after the storm. As of Monday, 1,445 had not been accounted for, according to Kristin Meyer, public information officer with the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals.

However, officials said that most of the unaccounted-for were probably alive.

“We expect 300 to 400 will be really, truly missing,” said Melissa Walker, another state health department spokeswoman. “Some might have died and been washed out to sea, and we’ll never ever know.” Others might be intentionally missing, she said.

“They’ve moved on with their lives and don’t want to be found,” Walker added.

Walker said that between 30 to 50 people, initially thought to be missing, were being located every day.

Meyer said that in many cases, people moving from evacuation shelter to trailer to other temporary housing haven’t been able to contact family. When they finally do connect, relatives who filed a missing-persons report don’t always inform authorities that their loved one has been found.

Walker said the Baton Rouge-based Find Family National Call Center receives about 150 calls a day from families looking for relatives. Between 10 and 15 of them are new callers.

Relatives are required to fill out an eight-page report with detailed information, including unique physical identifiers such as birthmarks and tattoos.

A file is opened on each person reported missing. The name is run through several missing-persons databases, including that of the state police and groups such as the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children.

Still, residents and community activists said it was crucial to monitor the demolition of homes -- which recently started in some neighborhoods -- to ensure that proper searches were being made and that remains of victims could receive a decent burial.

“We have people who go out to where they’re planning to bulldoze a home and make sure they’ve checked with cadaver dogs first,” said Lisa Fithian, a spokeswoman for Common Ground, an all-volunteer grass-roots relief organization. “We try to make sure that whatever bulldozing is done, is done correctly.”

Sunday’s discovery sent chills down Valerie Schexnayder’s spine. Until January, most of her immediate family had been scattered across several states, and there were moments of worry that some might be lost.

“I feel very grateful to the Lord that my family is reunited together,” said Schexnayder, 60, whose house in the Lower 9th Ward was damaged beyond repair. “But I have some cousins, and we can’t find them all. I hope they’re all alive and well.”