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Dogs Join Search for Bodies in New Orleans

March 9, 2006 at 12:00 AM EST
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WAYDE CARTER: Buddy, come.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Sometimes, it takes four legs to do a job two legs cannot. In this case, a six-year-old German shepherd named Buddy. He’s one of the top search-and-rescue dogs in the country. He works for the state of Maine’s Department of Fisheries and Wildlife.

But, this week, Buddy and five other dogs from around the country were brought to New Orleans to search for hundreds of bodies of people who have been missing since Katrina last August and are now presumed dead. The New Orleans Fire Department had been in charge of the search, but had to end it in December because they ran out of money.

Now, under an agreement with FEMA, the federal government has agreed to reimburse the city $400,000 for the recovery effort. Since most of the missing are believed buried beneath tons of dangerous debris, it’s difficult for human hands to reach them. The dogs, with their keen sense of scent, are crucial.

Dr. Louis Cataldie is Louisiana’s state medical examiner.

DR. LOUIS CATALDIE: Well, the challenge is at this point, of course, is that the human remains are in extreme stage of decomposition. And, so, it’s quite difficult to find these folks. The — the odor, if you would, that — that allowed us actually to find people before has greatly decreased. And we’re relying on these dogs to guide us to the victims now.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Good boy. Oh. Good boy.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: In the first four days of the renewed recovery effort, the dogs found four sets of human remains. Maine game warden Wayde Carter is Buddy’s handler.

WAYDE CARTER: What we do is not fun. Or we know that what we are going to find is bad news. That is what we are looking for. But at least it allows for closure for the families. And — and that is why we are here.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Several days ago, Buddy found the first flood victim since the new recovery effort began this week. At this house in Lakeview, firefighters searched for half-an-hour, but found no one. Then Buddy came in.

WAYDE CARTER: Immediately entering, he raised his head high. Usually, he will put his nose to the ground, which told me that Buddy had a — a scent coming from, you know, a high area of the house. We continued to watch Buddy. And he looked towards the ceiling, indicating to me that there was a scent coming from the attic area of the house.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: In less than a minute, the dog had found the victim.

STEVE GLYNN: Any word back yet on where we sent them?

BETTY ANN BOWSER: New Orleans Fire Chief Steve Glynn heads search-and-rescue for the department. It’s being run from a group of trailers set up in the city’s Lower Ninth Ward, one of the worst areas hit by floodwaters. Using aerial photographs, reports from a call-in center in Baton Rouge, and eyewitness reports, they are going house-to-house to look for bodies.

STEVE GLYNN: A good days is when we can clear those homes and actually let families — you know, let people that — the people that were concerned and that — that gave us these addresses — when we can tell them for sure, give them some resolution, this person was here, this person absolutely was not here, that — that’s a good day. I mean, that — that’s about the best — the best that, you know, this — this mission gets.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Everywhere the dogs search is dangerous. Sometimes, the firemen have to cut holes in the debris for them to get in. The dogs have to negotiate through mounds of contaminated debris. But when they find the scent of human remains, as Buddy did here on a practice run, there is no doubted about it. Buddy lets Carter know he has got a hit by lying down.

In this, the first week of the renewed effort to recovery bodies, fire department officials were starting to feel they were moving ahead. Then, last night, FEMA officials at this hotel in downtown New Orleans ordered two of the dog teams to leave, after a dispute over who should pay for their room.

Roger Guay is with the Maine dog team.

ROGER GUAY: As of this morning, after briefing, having a briefing over the phone with the major, our — our mission here has been suspended. We have been requested back to the state of Maine, and basically due to lack of logistical support.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: What does that mean?

ROGER GUAY: That means housing issues and also veterinary care.

Well, we are going to say goodbye for now.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: So, at Chief Glynn’s command center this morning, there were goodbyes. The Georgia dog team also pulled out, because it couldn’t find anyone from FEMA, the city government, or the state government to pay for their hotel rooms.

A FEMA official in Washington said the agency “does not pay for rooms for emergency workers,” and said that was a “state responsibility.” A spokesman for the Louisiana Department of Homeland Security said he was “desperately sorry” this had happened, because the state is “grateful for the support from all over the country.”

And he said, if either of the teams or FEMA had contacted the office, there would have been a “simple fix.”

But, for now, the search for bodies, people now missing since August 29 of last year, is practically at a standstill.