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Search Effort Continues for Katrina’s Missing

March 21, 2006 at 12:00 AM EST
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BETTY ANN BOWSER: When the bell goes off, it’s a good day, a good day because someone missing has been found alive. Here at the Louisiana Family Assistance Center in Baton Rouge, recently the bell sounded 20 times, and 20 more names were crossed off the list of 1,400 still missing from Hurricane Katrina.

LOUISIANA ASSISTANCE CENTER WORKER: Ms. Tran, my name is Jeff. I’m with the Louisiana Family Assistance Center in Baton Rouge.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: It seems hard to believe that so many people are still unaccounted for seven months after the storm, but a large segment of the population evacuated lacked resources. Many had no cell phones or computers to use to find their loved ones.

And the search for bodies was suspended in December when the city of New Orleans ran out of money. It began again recently under an agreement with FEMA to pay the costs.

But even if the search had continued, there were things about Katrina that made the effort unusually difficult, according to the center’s deputy director, Henry Yennie.

HENRY YENNIE: We’ve never had families literally exploded like this, where the mother went to one state, the daughter went to another, the father may have been on a stretcher and carried off to a hospital in Georgia. It’s just unprecedented.

LOUISIANA ASSISTANCE CENTER WORKER: OK, well, I found Sandy. He is back in New Orleans. He is with his Aunt Sheila.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Housed in a large converted sporting goods warehouse, the FEMA-funded Family Assistance Center was set up by the state in October to operate as an information clearinghouse for families and friends trying to find loved ones. But it has evolved into a sophisticated organization that identifies the dead, connects the living with the living, and provides counseling for grieving families.

LOUISIANA ASSISTANCE CENTER WORKER: OK, now, what’s your name?

BETTY ANN BOWSER: At one point, there were more than 12,000 people on the list of missing. But the center has found more than 9,000 alive, using Internet, databases, Social Security numbers, and lots of phone calls.

LOUISIANA ASSISTANCE CENTER WORKER: His family is looking for him, so we’re trying to get them back together, at least let them know that he’s OK.

DAISY PROVOST, Louisiana Family Assistance Center: I go in www.whitepages.com, and what I do, I look for someone with the last name of the informer or a missing person, and sometimes we find a sister, a brother, or somebody that is related to them.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: But trying to connect the living with their dead relatives is more problematic. Of the 923 bodies found since the storm, 844 have been identified, 60 of those using DNA. It is a process that is time-consuming.

DR. AMANDA SOZER, DNA Expert: Are these the samples that just came in today?

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Dr. Amanda Sozer leads the DNA team at the center. Sozer is in charge of a $12.8 million DNA identification effort that didn’t get started until December, when FEMA finally agreed to pick up that tab, as well. The DNA testing is not like what people see on television drama shows.

AMANDA SOZER: But it’s not like “CSI”; it’s more complex. In a crime, you’re doing a direct comparison, so you’re comparing blood, maybe that’s found at the scene of a crime, to a suspect. And it would be a direct match; each sample would have the exact same characteristics. Here it’s more complex.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: DNA has to be used, instead of traditional medical and dental records, because many of those were destroyed in the floodwaters. And, in order to get a good match, multiple members of a family, who could now be spread out all over the country, must be located to provide samples.

When enough with similar characteristics are collected, an identification can be made. Dr. Sozer explained using a family tree.

AMANDA SOZER: This person might be the deceased person. This is a family tree, and they may be more complex.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: So this is a parents, and they’re deceased?

AMANDA SOZER: They would be her parents that are deceased, so we can’t get a sample from them, but she has a brother and a sister.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: The square is male, the circle is female?

AMANDA SOZER: That’s correct.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: OK.

AMANDA SOZER: She also has a partner here and two children. So we would try to collect DNA, if we could, from the two children, also from the partner…

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Why?

AMANDA SOZER: .. the parent of those two children, because we can subtract off the characteristics that came from their father and directly attribute the remaining characteristics to the mother. So it’s very important for us, if we can, to collect a sample from children’s parents, if the other parent is missing.

We are testing to a probability of 99.9 percent. If we have a large number of related family members, it’s very easy to get that, it’s easy to get that number. But we have some cases where we don’t have close relatives or it’s hard to locate those close relatives.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Even when they can locate close relatives, the process for them can be agonizingly slow. Gentilly resident Darleen Cambrice spent months trying to find her 47-year-old brother, Lloyd Coleman, who was staying with friends in the Seventh Ward when Katrina hit. She never heard a word from him after the flooding.

So all this time, what’s going through your mind about your brother?

DARLEEN CAMBRICE, Relative of Hurricane Katrina Victim: Where is he? Is he one of those bodies that I saw floating? You know, what happened to him? Is he in a hospital? Could he have hit his head? You know, all kinds of things go through your mind.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Coleman’s body was found here in a friend’s backyard at the end of September and taken to a morgue, but it wasn’t until two weeks ago that Cambrice found out that her brother had been identified among the dead. The cause of death is still unknown because his body was so badly decomposed.

DARLEEN CAMBRICE: I’ll never know what really happened to him. I don’t believe he drowned. They said they can’t do an autopsy because all his organs are gone right now, so I will just never know, you know?

It will just be something that I’ll — as old people has always told me, in time, time heals all things. But right now, it is seven months. And my family is just as devastated, you know, today as we were when we realized that he may be missing or dead.

DR. LOUIS CATALDIE, Louisiana Medical Examiner: Ready for another day?

BETTY ANN BOWSER: State Medical Examiner Dr. Louis Cataldie is very aware of the anxiety families are dealing with, but he says identifying the dead is something that must be done right, no matter how long it takes.

LOUIS CATALDIE: I hope the families understand that we’ve got to be forensically able to defend that identity. It can’t be, “Oh, yes, we think it’s this person.”

It takes five years in Louisiana to declare a missing person dead. You can’t close estates; you can’t move forward with your life; you can’t mourn your loved one. You know, I empathize with these families. I cannot imagine what they’re going through.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: The center believes that among the missing are 300 to 400 dead and, of those, they think about 100 will never be found because they were washed away by the floodwaters.

Twenty-six-year-old Jeff Marquette thinks that’s what happened to his 56-year-old father, Kenneth Smith.

JEFFREY MARQUETTE, Relative of Hurricane Katrina Victim: I talked to him the day before the storm. And ever since then, I haven’t heard from him. He used to call me five, six times a day just to see how I was doing.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Smith was a disabled former construction worker who was taking care of his elderly mother in Port Sulphur, a small, coastal town south of New Orleans. The area was practically wiped out by Katrina.

These are before-and-after pictures of the house where Smith chose to ride out the hurricane.

Do you think he’s gone?

JEFFREY MARQUETTE: I think so. You know, I don’t know if I’ll ever find — you know, just with all of the high waters and…

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Do you think this is ever going to be over for you?

JEFFREY MARQUETTE: I hope, just to hear something.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: It’d be nice just to know?

JEFFREY MARQUETTE: Oh, yes.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: People like Jeff Marquette may never know what happened to their loved ones. Of the more than 900 dead that have been found, some of those may never been identified.

Sixty-six bodies are being held in several locations in the state; many are elderly people who drowned in the flooding, people with no dental or medical records and no close relatives. Who they were may remain one of the great unsolved mysteries of Hurricane Katrina.