Database of the Dead

By Elizabeth Bennett  |  Posted 2005-12-06 Print this article Print

With the bodies of 270 Hurricane Katrina victims lying unidentified in a morgue, a database intended to help medical examiners make IDs is coming up short.

At the St. Gabriel morgue, a body usually arrives in a body bag. It's assigned a case number by a staff person, who writes the number on a label and affixes it to the bag. Bodies are kept in a refrigerated truck except when the remains are being examined. The case number and the body's location in the morgue are recorded on paper and then entered into the VIP database by a state-hired clerk.

The VIP program, built on a customized FileMaker Pro relational database, mirrors an eight-page paper form filled out by Dmort and other forensic workers during a multi-step post-mortem exam. Those pages include space to record information such as physical characteristics—height and weight, race and complexion, and the presence of birthmarks and prosthetics. Other items found on the body, including jewelry, clothing and personal effects such as a notebook or wallet, are also input.

In addition, unless a body is severely decomposed, fingerprints are taken. Other steps include full-body and dental X-rays, dental examination, DNA sampling and an autopsy.

With VIP, all of this data—sometimes hundreds of pieces of information about one person—can be input into database tables. Then, if a corpse has a rose tattoo on its left forearm, a forensic investigator can search the "tattoo" field in another database that contains information on missing people.

A single tidbit could provide a breakthrough. One Katrina victim was identified based on his discount card from a Piggly Wiggly grocery store; others from jewelry and tattoos.

Because so many people fled the city—a reported 400,000—collecting information from phone conversations with victims' families, doctors, dentists and other medical professionals has taken on added complexity.

VIP wasn't initially designed as a contact management system to maintain summaries of phone conversations, lists of people and phone numbers, and call-back reminders. As a result, for the first month following Katrina, conversations were not recorded into VIP because there weren't fields for that. If a morgue worker contacted dentists, for example, to obtain dental records to help identify remains, that information was recorded on paper, according to Don Bloom, who developed VIP in 1994 and works on-call as a technical specialist for Dmort.

Without a single log of the numerous phone calls placed early on from the morgue, Cataldie says that Dmort workers, who rotate through the morgue every two weeks, take their knowledge with them. "All the history is gone," he says.

By late September, Bloom programmed a feature into the VIP database that allows Dmort workers to make a notation after requesting dental records or contacting someone who reported a missing person.

But that's not enough for Cataldie, whose staff would benefit from reminders to check in with people who could be related to victims. Cataldie's office may call to clarify personal information or to see whether a missing family member has been found alive.

"I would like to have some database tell me that today is Sept. 29," Cataldie says. "That these people have to be called for their weekly follow-up."

Bloom says that adding an alert system to VIP would be "an easy fix," but that Cataldie and others at the morgue hadn't requested the feature.

Tracking missing people is yet another challenge. After Katrina, state and federal officials set up a family assistance center in Baton Rouge, La. There, family members and others can report a missing person, his or her name and address, what he or she looks like, and clothing worn when last seen. To capture or record that information, family-

assistance center technicians adapted the morgue's VIP database, which has some fields to track missing-person data, for their own use.

While separate, the VIP databases at the morgue and at the Baton Rouge call center can be viewed and searched simultaneously via a T1 connection—a fast link that can transmit 1.5 megabits of information a second—provided by the state. That morgue worker searching for a tattoo would first try the missing person's VIP file for a match.

VIP was originally designed to match dates and physical characteristics, according to Bob Shank, a deputy commander of Dmort's upper Midwest region who is responsible for Dmort's information systems and mobile morgue unit. But, Shank says, VIP was not intended to be a tool to track reports of missing persons or coordinate lists of displaced people.

To wit, IBM in November was retained at no cost to analyze lists of missing people from nine different federal and charity-owned databases and Web sites to search for duplicate names and other conflicts. For example, if someone listed in the missing-persons' VIP has requested housing assistance from FEMA, an investigator would follow up and close out the case. IBM sends daily reports to the technology staff at the Baton Rouge call center.

Story Guide:
Identifying the Dead: New Orleans Mortuary Response Team

  • Database of the Dead
  • Digging for Data
  • DMort Base Case

    Next page: Digging for Data.

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    Senior Writer
    Elizabeth has been writing and reporting at Baselinesince its inaugural issue. Most recently, Liz helped Fortune 500 companies with their online strategies as a customer experience analyst at Creative Good. Prior to that, she worked in the organization practice at McKinsey & Co. She holds a B.A. from Vassar College.

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