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Hurricane Katrina

Makeshift morgue draws desperate families

By ALEX LEARY, Times Staff Writer
Published September 3, 2005

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GULFPORT, Miss. - She started with the old house down by the beach in Pass Christian, pushing and pulling through the rubble. There was no door to go through, only a hole in the side.

"We looked everywhere and didn't see anything," Debbie Claud said. Not her Aunt Hilda, who was more like a mom, or her only child, Lee, or his wife, Janis.

She warned them to flee, not to mess with the storm. But Hilda was her stubborn self, refusing to leave her porcelain dolls, and Lee joked he'd be fishing for flounder.

After searching the house, Claud, 47, and her boyfriend went to the hospital. They asked the FEMA guys. They walked street to street, showing pictures to anyone. Each time, nothing.

On Friday, with the T-bird's gas tank as nearly empty as their hopes, the couple walked into the Harrison County Coroner's Office in downtown Gulfport, reluctantly accepting that Hilda, Lee and Janis could be dead.

If that was their fate, the bodies could have been in one of six refrigerated truck trailers outside the nearby Riemann Funeral Home. With power still out across Harrison County, the trailers are serving as a makeshift morgue.

More than 60 bodies had been brought here as of Friday.

Two of the trailers were hauled away, full, and others took their place. "I'm sure we'll use them all," said Jason Green, the funeral home's assistant manager. "I think we're just scratching the surface. The rubble is still so high."

Emergency officials announced Friday several family assistance centers, including the coroner's office, where people could report missing family. A toll-free number was planned, too.

But news about the makeshift morgue at the funeral home had spread and 30 or so people showed up, desperate for information about loved ones.

"We had one lady who lost her husband and son," said Green, who recognized several bodies as members of his Catholic church.

A doctor's mask hung around his neck. By then the stench of decaying flesh was as familiar as the sight of flattened homes and businesses, he said.

The pungent odor carried in a steady breeze, wafting over the rescuers retrieving bodies. They too seemed immune. "You just have to do it; you don't have a choice," said Steven Wilson, a volunteer and college student who said he helped bring in 40 bodies.

"I say I'm okay now, but when this is all done, I don't know how I'm going to feel," he said.

Dr. Paul McGarry held long sheets of paper. Boxes drawn in pencil listed the deceased: John Doe, wm, 36, John Doe 2, John Doe A, John Doe B, Mary Doe, Jane Doe. Unidentified bodies were sent to a regional morgue for fingerprinting and DNA sampling.

McGarry, a forensic pathologist, sought to dispel fears bodies were posing a health hazard. "We have plenty of refrigeration. There is no threat to the community."

Working amid the deadly toll of Katrina, McGarry had his own disaster to dwell on. Asked where he was from, he replied in a quiet voice - New Orleans. Asked how his home fared, he made a cutting motion with his hand.

"I can't go back," he said.

After not finding her family at the coroner's office, Claud and her boyfriend decided to try hospitals one more time. Boys near her aunt's home said a girl with blond hair was rescued by a helicopter a day after the hurricane. Perhaps it was her son's wife, Janis.

"If he ain't dead, I'm going to kill him for not calling us," Claud's boyfriend said.

"No," she shot back, "we'll hug him to death."

[Last modified September 3, 2005, 01:21:10]

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