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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Task of finding countless dead overwhelming in New Orleans

Thomas Fitzgerald and Melody McDonald Knight Ridder

NEW ORLEANS – As the floodwaters drain from the streets, the city is giving up its dead.

Bodies are found tied together and attached to trees, bridge abutments, fences – put there by passers-by to keep them from washing away. Going house to house, with Vicks VapoRub under their nostrils to block the stench, rescue workers mark houses that hold bodies – and enter the spots on a global positioning system. Specialists will come later to collect the dead.

After racing to save the living, authorities are now overwhelmed with finding and identifying those who perished – a task with massive dimensions as Katrina’s death toll threatens to climb into the thousands.

Officials have set aside 25,000 body bags as federal workers and specialists from across the country descend on the Gulf Coast to help retrieve the bodies and counsel grieving families.

The federal government also has contracted an international company with decades of experience in dealing with mass casualties, including last year’s Asian tsunami, to assist in the effort. Mayor Ray Nagin has predicted that New Orleans’ death toll could reach 10,000; other projections have placed the toll even higher.

Now that M-16-toting troops have encouraged many of the living still holed up in their homes to leave, many search teams have shifted their focus to collecting bodies throughout the stricken city and adjoining St. Bernard Parish. The dead are placed in refrigerated trucks and driven to a makeshift morgue in St. Gabriel, La., just south of Baton Rouge.

At the large metal warehouse, officials with the federal Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Team, a large group of pathologists, DNA and fingerprint experts from around the country, work around the clock trying to identify the bodies.

At least 60 specialists from Houston-based Kenyon International Emergency Services Inc. are expected to assist FEMA in recovering bodies. Founded in 1929, the company specializes in disaster response and recovery and has handled more than 300 disasters, from hurricanes to airplane crashes. Kenyon specialists were deployed in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and last year’s tsunami.

Half the victims brought in to the morgue so far have been identified, Bob Johannessen, a spokesman for the state Department of Health and Hospitals, said Thursday. “They have been in a hospital facility and had an armband or they were located in a home with an address,” he said.

Once a body enters the morgue, it’s decontaminated and assigned a number and an escort, a person who’ll stay with that body through the process. Epidemiologists check the body for communicable diseases and hazardous materials.

“There appears to be some hazardous type materials in the water and these victims have been floating,” said Dr. Louis Cataldie, the chief medical examiner of Louisiana. “We’re very cognizant there could be an outbreak of illness, so we are staying on top of that.”

After that assessment, a forensic pathologist determines whether the person’s death was caused by the hurricane. The body is then photographed, and the victim’s personal effects are catalogued. Then the body is moved to a station manned by forensic dental experts, who take X-rays. At a DNA area, a sample is taken from the victim’s bone and stored in a freezer. The body is then returned to a refrigeration truck.

Countless bodies are still submerged in the toxic waters or clustered in abandoned homes across the devastated landscape. The latest official death count in Louisiana was 118, but it will rise.

“Be aware that you’re going to see dead people,” said David Dean, a special agent with the Louisiana Alcohol and Tobacco Control Agency as he warned searchers setting out Thursday on their first mission in an amphibious vehicle. “Be prepared. Don’t let it get to you.”

On Wednesday, about a dozen 16-foot boats snaked through the black, smelly water in the Gentilly section of New Orleans. City police officers and game wardens from South Carolina rubbed Vicks below their noses.

“Hello. Hello,” they shouted as they drifted by homes, some flooded up to their roof lines.

But there was only the whining of abandoned dogs. The occasional beeps from security systems. The bubbling of gas from broken lines.

Then, the smell would hit. A smell that even the Vicks couldn’t hide.

“You smell that?” said Todd Campbell, one of the game wardens, to the other officers in the boat. “Death.”

Other bodies, bloated and face down, floated by. “Floater,” the officers said, calling in the locations.

While search teams ply the water, thousands of families across the Gulf Coast await even the slimmest bit of news about missing relatives.

Several hundred funeral home directors have volunteered to assist in the recovery and identification effort and to help family members arrange to bury their loved ones, said Bob Biggins of Rockland, Mass., president-elect of the National Funeral Directors Association.

“The loss of life has just been profound,” he said. “I think this may redefine how we memorialize those we’ve lost because of the mass scale.”

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