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Hurricane Katrina

Small town waits to receive Katrina's dead

Residents of tiny St. Gabriel will bear witness to the storm's toll as thousands of victims fill a makeshift mortuary.

Published September 8, 2005

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ST. GABRIEL, La. - Police Officer Joseph Bobo, standing guard in front of the old chemical warehouse next to town hall, shrugs his shoulders.

"Some people's upset," he says, "but I told them, "The dead can't do you no harm.' "

He told them that because refrigerated trucks have been delivering New Orleans' dead, one after another, to this small Mississippi River town 15 miles south of Baton Rouge. Here, just off Iberville Street, the bodies of hundreds and possibly thousands killed by Hurricane Katrina will be processed in a makeshift mortuary.

The federal government already has a staff of 100 workers - morticians, forensic pathologists, anthropologists, medical examiners, coroners, fingerprint technicians, radiologists, dental technicians and others - identifying the bodies and preparing them for burial.

More than a dozen bodies already have arrived. Nobody knows just how many victims Katrina claimed in Louisiana. New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin has warned "it wouldn't be unreasonable to have 10,000" dead in the city, and most of them will end up here.

St. Gabriel's temporary morgue could accommodate as many as 5,000 bodies.

That doesn't sit well with some in this town of 5,300, hemmed in by sugarcane fields, chemical plants, two prisons and the river.

About 200 residents turned out at a town hall meeting Tuesday evening to vent frustrations about fears the bodies might carry disease, plans to close local roads and why their town was chosen for such a grim task.

St. Gabriel is predominantly black and mostly poor. The per capita income is $8,952, compared with $16,912 for the state and $21,587 for the nation.

"They always dump on the poor," said Fenolia Green, an 88-year-old retiree who is housing nieces and nephews left homeless by Hurricane Katrina.

"It would be different in Baton Rouge," said Jackie Wilson. "This place has two, three streets. I hope it doesn't start stinking around here."

But some locals said they don't mind the town's peculiar distinction.

"It doesn't bother me," said Patrick Lee, a native who lives within sight of the mortuary. "It's got to be done. They've got to take them somewhere."

Some, like police Chief Kevin Ambeau, are proud.

"We're doing our small part in history. It's our contribution to this national disaster," Ambeau said. "We're going to treat them with dignity and respect."

The mortuary, formerly used by businesses to store merchandise, is about the size of a football field. FEMA spokesman Ricardo Zuniga said Wednesday that workers hope to process about 140 bodies a day in the mortuary, which can accommodate 1,000 bodies at a time but could be expanded to handle five times that many.

It's a delicate job.

Many of the bodies have been decomposing in toxic water for days and will be decontaminated so they can be handled safely. No autopsies will be performed at the center, Zuniga said.

Officials will gather an array of forensic data, such as fingerprints, DNA samples and dental X-rays. Medical records, including information like pacemaker serial numbers or evidence of artificial hips or knees, will be compiled into a profile of each victim and stored in a database accessible to families looking for missing people.

The state is looking for cemetery space, and victims not immediately identified will be buried there. Officials said the bodies can later be moved to family plots.

Ambeau, the police chief, stood outside town hall on Wednesday as another refrigerated truck turned onto Iberville Street with more bodies - someone's mother, someone's child. Someone.

He noted that the town was named after the archangel Gabriel, God's messenger.

"In my view, it's appropriate to bring the dead here," he said. "It's the perfect place to take them."

Information from the Associated Press and the New York Times was included in this report.

[Last modified September 8, 2005, 01:50:14]

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