Identifying the Dead: New Orleans Mortuary Response

By Elizabeth Bennett 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.

After Hurricane Katrina's assault on the gulf Coast in August, the horror of the storm's destruction was televised to the world. Day after day, searing images of the bodies of people who wouldn't—or couldn't—evacuate the area were seen floating in sewage-filled waters.

Now, a little more than three months later, the water has receded and New Orleans is taking its first steps toward recovery. But the suffering continues for the families and friends of the more than 5,800 dead and missing. A total of 1,086 bodies have been recovered in New Orleans, and of those, at least 270 remain unidentified as of Nov. 28. Most of the unidentified bodies are located at the temporary morgue set up after the hurricane in

St. Gabriel, La., about 70 miles west of New Orleans:

The state's medical examiner, Dr. Louis Cataldie, is using a database called the Victim Identification Profile (VIP) to help identify bodies. VIP was built by the Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Team (Dmort), a network of 10 regional teams of 1,200 medical, forensic and mortuary professionals that operate under the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). VIP, designed to help medical examiners identify bodies after disasters such as plane crashes and building collapses, was used in New York after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. It is a repository for detailed physical characteristics of the dead and post-mortem medical exam results.

The VIP database, however, was not designed to handle anything on the scale of Katrina, where more than 4,700 people are still reported missing, out of the original total of 10,633.

In many other cases where VIP was used, there were passenger manifests and building-occupancy lists to populate an initial VIP worksheet. From there, other identifiers—body descriptions, personal effects, etc.—were entered and then sorted to match names and victims.

But the fallout from Katrina was widespread.

There is no single, complete list of missing people; bodies are being recovered across a wide area; and those remains are being found weeks or even months after death. Analysis of the database records is hampered by limited search capabilities and the inability to easily flag incomplete or inaccurate data, among other problems, according to those working to identify bodies at the morgue.

"We've got people scattered over an area the size of Great Britain," Cataldie says. "There's no manifest. All we've got are 16,000 phone calls of people reporting people missing."

Besides the information-management challenges, other factors contribute to the protracted identification process in Louisiana, according to state officials and others.

Many bodies are severely decomposed, making DNA matching one of the few options available to medical examiners. And there was a delay in matching the DNA of recovered bodies with genetic samples provided by victims' family and friends due to a reported squabble between state and federal authorities over who would foot the bill.

The obstacles in Louisiana underscore the importance for organizations—from governments to businesses to nonprofit agencies—to be able to collect, analyze and disseminate up-to-date information in times of crisis.

Cataldie says he and his team are committed to their task, but concedes that "it absolutely takes longer" to identify bodies with the information systems in use at the morgue. In fact, he wanted to identify all of the bodies before the end of September.

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

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

    Next page: Database of the Dead.

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    This article was originally published on 2005-12-06
    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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