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Friday, October 7, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Most Hurricane Katrina victims still unnamed

The Associated Press

NEW ORLEANS — Within weeks of the attack on the World Trade Center, the public knew a lot about many of the Sept. 11, 2001, victims: their families, their jobs, even some of the intimate details of their final moments. The victims' families mobilized with remarkable effectiveness to make sure their loved ones were found and their stories told.

More than a month after Hurricane Katrina, the vast majority of the nearly 1,000 dead in Louisiana lie anonymously in a morgue, largely because authorities have released only a few dozen names, but also, perhaps, because many of the victims' families were scattered by the storm and are still picking up the pieces of their lives.

There has been no clamor from the victims' loved ones, little public pressure on officials to release the names of the dead or at least try harder to identify them.

Most of the 988 dead in a St. Gabriel morgue remain unidentified, awaiting release to relatives. Hamstrung by lost dental records and the decomposition of bodies that floated in floodwaters and lay in searing heat for days or weeks, officials say an accurate catalog of the dead may be weeks away, or longer.

"We know families must be frantic," said Department of Health and Hospitals spokesman Christina Stephens. "We completely understand and are trying to have it move efficiently and quickly, but we have no margin for error. We have to be 100 percent sure before we tell someone a body is their loved one."

The Sept. 11 victims included many stockbrokers and traders, and their families tended to be well-off and well-connected, with the means to put pressure on public officials and get their story out. They also had the backing of their loved ones' employers. A large number of the victims in New Orleans were poor and black.

Dr. Silas Lee, a New Orleans political analyst and pollster, said that may help explain the lack of pressure to speed up the identification.

"Being black and poor may be a part of it, but it may not be exclusively that," said Lee, who is black. He thinks the main reason is that everyone has been dispersed all over the country by the storm.

As of yesterday in Louisiana, 73 bodies had been released from the morgue, and the names of 32 victims had been made public. Officials said they are having trouble finding relatives to whom they can release the bodies.

At least 267 victims have been tentatively identified, but officials at the morgue are insisting on DNA, fingerprints or dental records before making a positive match, authorities said.

"I don't know if it's slow or if it's being done in a deliberate manner, but I know it's slower than we want," said Dr. Louis Cataldie, who is heading the body recovery in the region.

Frank Minyard, the Orleans Parish coroner, said his staff working in St. Gabriel is able to do 12 to 15 autopsies a day.

"I would estimate we will be here for at least a year," he said.

He and Cataldie said most people died of natural causes such as strokes and heart attacks, and far fewer from drowning. Eight people had gunshot wounds, but Minyard said those would not be classified as homicides because the circumstances of the deaths were not known.

Minyard said he thinks more people committed suicide than many realized and cited as an example "a guy I know very well" who drank refrigerant after seeing his storm-damaged property.

Officials said they have taken nearly 250 DNA samples from family members. But many dental records were ruined by the flood. The identifying of the dead was also slowed for days by Hurricane Rita. And because of criminal investigations, all of the more than 100 bodies recovered from nursing homes and hospitals had to be autopsied.

In Mississippi, 196 of the 221 known victims of Katrina have been identified. But tattoos, driver's licenses and physical characteristics have been used there, means of identification that Louisiana officials say are insufficient by themselves.

Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco regards the identification of the dead as a top priority but does not want the process rushed and someone misidentified, spokeswoman Denise Bottcher said.

"That is something you do not want to get wrong," she said.

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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