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Last Updated: Thursday, 8 September 2005, 00:07 GMT 01:07 UK
Grisly task of naming the dead
By Matthew Davis
BBC News, Mississippi

The grim work of identifying the corpses from New Orleans is being done in a small Mississippi river town, more than 70 miles from the city.

A body is recovered after Hurricane Katrina
No one knows how many bodies will ultimately be recovered

A former chemical industry warehouse in the community of St Gabriel is the scene for one of the most unpleasant, but vital tasks in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

No one knows how many people were killed in the New Orleans floods - or who died waiting for help to arrive.

But as the body recovery operation slowly gets under way, refrigeration lorries escorted by police have begun delivering a grisly cargo of unidentified corpses to a makeshift mortuary.

Over the coming months, specialists will work round the clock to find out who they are - and bring some relief to thousands of families.

Ricardo Zuniga, of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, told the BBC: "We don't refer to them as bodies, these are people and they will be treated with the utmost respect and dignity - this is someone's mother or father or brother."

Fifty-nine bodies were being held at the facility as of Wednesday lunchtime, but the site can process up to 140 each day. It is expected to be operational for at least three months.

Staff include funeral directors, medical examiners, coroners, pathologists, forensic anthropologists, medical records technicians and transcribers and fingerprint specialists.

Maurice Anderson, St Gabriel resident
As a resident I am against it... But we had no choice
Maurice Anderson, St Gabriel resident

Steps to help identify the dead include collection and documentation of personal effects and body marks, fingerprinting by the FBI, dental photographs and collection of bone samples for DNA.

In some cases, full-body X-rays will be used to spot serial numbers on hip replacements, pacemakers and other internal medical implants.

Bodies bearing signs that death was not hurricane-related - gunshot wounds or blows - may be sent for autopsy.

When every scrap of information has been gleaned, the bodies will be passed on to the state of Louisiana, which is setting up family assistance centres, and is expected temporarily to bury many bodies.

Expecting visitors

The authorities say the site is a scientific facility - and that relatives will not be allowed inside.

But it has not stopped those hoping for news of a loved one from trying to gain access.

Kevin Ambeau, St Gabriel police chief, said: "Yesterday we had a few families coming by, and we are expecting more when they find out we are here."

He added: "The bodies are not a pretty sight, I feel for the guys out there finding them - but they will be treated with dignity and respect."

A compound used to identify hurricane victims
The community of St Gabriel is the venue for an unpleasant task

Mr Ambeau said many in the community had friends and family in New Orleans.

"We are playing a small part in history - St Gabriel was named after the archangel Gabriel - if they were going to chose anywhere, I would have said bring it here."

But his views are not echoed by many in the community. Maurice Anderson lives with his parents in a bungalow just yards from the mortuary entrance.

"As a resident I am against it, but I think if it was one of my family members I would feel a lot different.

"But we had no choice. The government just came in and said 'we need it' and the people didn't get any say in it.

"There was a town meeting, everyone is furious but what can we do. We didn't find out about it until it started happening."

Disease fears

The Environmental Protection Agency is warning that the floodwaters were contaminated with E.coli and coliform bacteria, lead and other dangerous substances and reports say at least five people have been confirmed dead from bacteria in contaminated water.

Vanessa Jackson, a garage worker who also lives metres from the site, said local people were afraid of contracting diseases from the dead.

"We hear so much about what terrible conditions there have been, I wish this had gone somewhere else."

Town mayor George Grace said: "This was thrust upon us and we are going to make the best of it."

Federal officials warn that the situation will only get worse before it gets any better.

"We need to prepare the country for what's coming," the homeland security secretary, Michael Chertoff, said in a television interview.

"We are going to uncover people who died, maybe hiding in houses, got caught by the flood," he said. "It is going to be about as ugly a scene as I think you can imagine."

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