Caring For Katrina's Dead

Bernalillo County (N.M.) Sheriff's deputy Lt. Gregg Marcantel walks through a broken window at the Red Cross building in a flooded downtown New Orleans on Sunday, Sept. 11, 2005, where he located the body of a teenage boy. Bodies are being removed from the city and taken to a field morgue at St. Gabriel's near Baton Rouge, La. (AP Photo/The Times, Shane Bevel)
There is no horse-drawn wagon to take the coffin to the cemetery, no wailing jazz band trudging through the streets. The dead these days no longer get the traditional New Orleans send-off.

Instead, gleaming refrigerated trucks escorted by police carry them away; not to their final resting places, but to a disaster morgue in a town bordered by sugar cane fields and the Mississippi River.

The police escort is not for security or speed; it is a gesture of respect to those had been overlooked while rescuers concentrated on saving the living.

Police lead the plain white trucks carrying Hurricane Katrina's victims all the way to St. Gabriel, some 70 miles west of New Orleans, where FEMA's Disaster Mortuary Operations and Response Team is waiting.

"We are treating these people with the dignity and respect they deserve," DMORT spokesman Ricardo Zuniga said. "This is not cargo; this is someone's mother."

With hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people dead in New Orleans, the mortuary specialists in charge of gathering, processing and identifying the victims are trying to accomplish a monumental task with both efficiency and sensitivity.

When a body is found, its location is marked and a DMORT specialist is called in to retrieve it, noting details from the scene, such as an address or personal effects found nearby. The body is shielded from public view by a tarp as workers place it in a black body bag. Upon arrival in St. Gabriel, it will be protected from prying eyes again by a chain-link fence cloaked in black plastic.

The morgue, a 150,000-square-foot tan warehouse with a silver metal roof, is designed to handle up to 144 bodies a day.

Each body is handled individually with the utmost respect and care, Zuniga said.

"They are dealing with one person and they are replicating that 140 times," he said.

Zuniga looked weary and his eyes occasionally welled with tears as he spoke. "I apologize. It's hard to talk about this every day," he said, looking away.

After passing through a gate topped with barbed wire and guarded by an armed federal agent, each body is assigned a number. The body is then decontaminated, both for forensic purposes -- to preserve what little evidence may be left on the corpse after more than a week in the water -- and to protect the specialists who will come into contact with the remains, Louisiana DMORT commander Terry Edwards said.