Watch CBS News

Hurricane Katrina victim identified nearly 2 decades after storm pounded Gulf Coast

CBS News' Tracy Smith was in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina hit, covering the crisis that followed the storm
Revisiting victims of Hurricane Katrina 02:39

Almost two decades after a woman's death during Hurricane Katrina, modern forensic tests finally allowed authorities to identify her remains. Citing anecdotes from her family, the forensic genetic genealogy company Othram said Tonette Waltman Jackson was swept away by floodwaters that split her Biloxi, Mississippi, home in half during the devastating hurricane that slammed into the Gulf Coast in August 2005. She was 46 years old.

Jackson had been hiding in the attic of the house she shared with her husband, Hardy Jackson, as water levels rose, said Michael Vogen, a case management director at Othram. The company routinely partners with law enforcement agencies to help solve cold cases using DNA technology and worked with Mississippi authorities to identify Jackson. Both Jackson and her husband were swept away in the floods, but Hardy managed to grab hold of a nearby tree and ultimately survived the hurricane. As far as her family knew, Jackson's body was never found.

About a week after Katrina made landfall, in September 2005, a search and rescue team discovered remains between the rubble of two homes that had been destroyed in St. Martin, several miles from Biloxi, according to Vogen. Although investigators were able to determine basic characteristics, like the remains belonged to a Black woman likely in her fifties, who was between 5 feet 1 inches and 5 feet 5 inches tall, they were not able to develop meaningful leads as to who she actually was, and the case went cold. 

Tonette Waltman Jackson's remains were identified in May 2024 — almost two decades after her death during Hurricane Katrina. Othram

Jackson's remains were buried in Machpelah Cemetery in the city of Pascagoula, with a headstone that read "Jane (Love)" and recognized her as a victim of the hurricane. 

"At that point, it was uncertain who the individual was," Pascagoula Police Lt. Darren Versiga, who was involved in the investigation into Jackson's identity, told WLOX-TV, an affiliate station of CBS and ABC. He added: "In 2005, when Jane Love or Tonette's remains were found, forensic genetic genealogy was not a tool that was available."

Jackson's true identity was a mystery until very recently, as the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation and the state Medical Examiner's Office coordinated to exhume the body only last year in hopes of figuring it out. 

The agencies partnered with Othram, where scientists pulled a DNA sample from the skeletal remains and used forensic genome sequencing  to build out a full profile for her. Genetic genealogy — where DNA profiling and testing is essentially combined with typical investigative methods for tracing family trees — helped identify potential relatives that gave investigators new leads to pursue. Earlier this month, testing on a DNA sample submitted by one of Jackson's close family members confirmed her identity.

Hardy Jackson gave an on-camera interview to CBS affiliate WKRG in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and shared his wife's story. Versiga told WLOX that he may have been able to develop a lead sooner as to Tonette Jackson's identity had he seen that video.

"I just missed it, and I'm the expert," he told the station. "But, we have her now. We've got her name back to her, and that's the principle of all this."

CBS News contacted the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation and the State Medical Examiner's Office for comment but did not receive immediate replies.

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.