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Search For Katrinas Dead Stymied By Bureaucratic Wrangling

One of the thousands of dead, left in Katrina's wake. Copyright AFP.
by Allen Johnson
New Orleans (AFP) Mar 13, 2006
More than six months after Hurricane Katrina, the plodding search for the dead remains stymied by the same bureaucratic wrangling that has kept the rebuilding of New Orleans at a snail's pace.

On Thursday, the city lost all but one of its cadaver dogs due to a dispute over whether the state or the federal government would pay the hotel bills of canine officers on loan from other states.

The abrupt departure of the frustrated officers came less than a week after the search had resumed after it had been suspended in December because the federal government cut off funding to the cash-strapped local fire department.

The official door-to-door search of New Orleans ended October 3 with a death toll of 972. Since then, at least 131 more bodies have been found. Some by officials, some by horror-struck friends and family members, and some by insurance inspectors. On Tuesday a body was found by a scrap metal collector.

A few weeks ago, the federal government finally weaned through the reports of the nearly 2,000 people missing and gave firefighters a list of addresses to check for bodies and the funding to pay for the search.

About 400 of those people are estimated to be dead. And while many may have been washed away by the storm scores are believed to remain trapped in the rubble.

There is unfortunately little public pressure on government officials to speed up the search for Katrina's dead, said Peter Scharf, a criminologist at the University of New Orleans.

"People in New Orleans have gotten used to fatalism and they have gotten used to nothing working as it should," said Scharf, adding that public apathy in the city predates the hurricane of Aug. 29.

"It's almost like a battered woman who is relieved when she gets a reprieve from a beating on a certain night. And you almost think the beater is right."

He said race and geography also are factors, explaining that the city's elites have long been apathetic toward high homicide rates in the poor, black Lower Ninth Ward neighborhood where many of the bodies remain.

The head of the citywide search cites a raft of factors for the plodding pace.

"I think the scale of this disaster is unprecedented," said New Orleans fire chief Steve Glynn, who directs the effort from a trailer in the Lower Ninth Ward. "The fact that the operation was shut down obviously hurt. And there are still people calling in to report people missing."

Officials decline to estimate much longer the search will take. Even if the hunt had not been suspended, "I think we'd still be searching out here right now," cautions Louisiana medical examiner Louis Cataldie. The coroner, meanwhile, continues to struggle to identify the remains of those pulled from the wreckage. Of the 910 people examined at a special morgue at Carville, 86 storm victims remain unidentified.

The coroner has also been unable to locate the families of 74 people whose bodies are ready to be released for burial, said Melissa Walker, a spokeswoman for the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals.

Source: Agence France-Presse

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