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Katrina Updates

November 16th, 2005 4:36 PM

La. toll rises as evacuees find dead in return to homes

By Kevin Johnson and Richard Willing / USA TODAY

More than a month after the official search for victims of Hurricane Katrina ended, the death toll in Louisiana has jumped by 104 as returning families in the New Orleans area continue to find bodies.

Many of the newly discovered victims are elderly people who sought refuge in attics and upper floors from the rising waters throughout New Orleans' devastated 9th Ward, said Frank Minyard, the coroner in greater New Orleans.

"Some people are just now getting back to their homes and to the homes of their relatives," Minyard said. "The bodies are still coming in."

When Louisiana ended its door-to-door search Oct. 3, the number of Katrina-related deaths there stood at 972. This week, the total reached 1,076, according to the state Department of Health and Hospitals. In neighboring Mississippi, where much of the damage was in rural areas and was more obvious from the start, the death toll stands at 230, up nine since Oct. 3.

In Louisiana, Minyard said, his office has picked up eight to 10 victims since Nov. 1. He said there is no way to determine how many more are left.

Louisiana's decision to end the official search for victims last month triggered harsh criticism from Jack Stephens, sheriff of ravaged St. Bernard Parish, east of New Orleans. He said state authorities never completely searched some of the most heavily damaged areas where many elderly residents lived when Katrina struck the Gulf Coast on Aug. 29.

"For people to come home to that damage and then to make that gruesome discovery — that doesn't seem fair to me," Stephens said.

Most of the bodies recovered in the aftermath of Katrina have been sent to a makeshift morgue in St. Gabriel, La. Minyard and other medical examiners have been working there to identify and reunite victims with their families. Family members have complained that death records have been incomplete or inaccurate, The New York Times reported Sunday.

In the 2½ months since the hurricane, Louisiana officials have not performed any DNA tests on at least 321 bodies that remain unidentified, said Capt. Brian Wynne, commander of the Louisiana State Police crime lab. Also untested: DNA samples submitted by relatives of missing persons to try to help determine whether any of the dead have similar genetic profiles. Biologically related people have similar profiles.

DNA testing has been stalled while state officials and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) wrangle over how much private labs contracted to do the tests should be paid. Louisiana officials want FEMA to pay for testing. FEMA spokeswoman Nicol Andrews said the state's request of $25 million was about twice the amount needed.

Minyard has defended the work at St. Gabriel, saying medical examiners have worked tirelessly to complete an unprecedented task.

On Monday, however, Stephens called the St. Gabriel operation a "disaster." He said the body of a local hurricane-related suicide victim, which had been taken to St. Gabriel a few weeks ago, could not be found for a few days after the victim's family asked about it.

In St. Bernard Parish, Stephens said authorities still are searching remote areas for remains. He estimated that 25 to 30 people are unaccounted for.

"We're still out here looking," he said.

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