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'Rita scares us to death'

New Orleans body recovery slowed by hazardous conditions



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New Orleans (Louisiana)
Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)

BATON ROUGE, Louisiana (CNN) -- The difficult task of collecting the dead continued in New Orleans Wednesday, as Hurricane Rita gathered strength in the Gulf of Mexico, threatening to disrupt the recovery effort.

In Louisiana, the official death toll climbed to 799, the state's Department of Health and Hospitals said. Louisiana's rising toll brings the total number of deaths from the storm to 1,033.

Although Rita appeared headed for landfall on the Texas coast, Louisiana was preparing Wednesday to feel some effects from the Category 4 storm. (See video of Rita's path -- 2:04.)

"Rita scares us to death, at least it scares me to death," Louisiana Emergency Response Medical Director Dr. Louis Cataldie told CNN. Cataldie is in charge of the makeshift morgue in St. Gabriel, about 70 miles from New Orleans.

On Wednesday, 628 of Katrina's victims were at the morgue, spokesman Bob Johannsen said. About 100 have been identified.

A majority of them died at hospitals, nursing homes and other large facilities, he added. They have not been released to relatives because autopsies are being performed as part of the state attorney general's investigation of nursing home deaths in Katrina's wake.

With sustained winds of 140 mph, Rita is packing the same punch as Katrina when it slammed into the Louisiana-Mississippi border on August 29. Depending on Rita's track, New Orleans could receive several inches of rain, straining the city's fragile levees.

Some workers involved in the recovery of bodies have now been redeployed at special needs shelters in the western part of the state. They are needed to care for evacuees, Johannsen said.

Even though New Orleans has been pumped dry of the floodwaters that once submerged 80 percent of the city, the work of recovering the dead is still dangerous and difficult, Cataldie said.

Two recovery workers had to be rescued when they were overcome by fumes on Tuesday, Cataldie told CNN.


Watch video of the man in charge of recovering the dead -- 4:32 )

"I must tell you that the recovery process is getting very, very difficult and very, very dangerous," he said. "Two people had to be evacuated out last night and one's (being treated) in a hyperbaric chamber."

He explained that recovery teams are entering enclosed areas searching for bodies, "and there are all types of gases."

"I can just tell you," Cataldie added, "having to go into some of those recoveries, it's real easy to get a lungfull of something noxious. Once you get the first inhalation, you're in trouble."

Cataldie said officials now are in the third, most detailed phase of their search. Teams are now entering houses, accompanied by police or the National Guard, who establish probable cause to go in.

Officials could not say what percentage of the city had been searched, but many homes are marked with spray paint, indicating that a search has taken place there.

Identifying the remains isn't easy, Cataldie told CNN.

"Initially, of course, we retrieved folks in hospitals and nursing homes so we had medical records there," he said. "Most of them had arm bands. We had a tentative identification."

Now, he said, most the bodies being recovered are unrecognizable and badly decomposed.

"A lot of the bodies, frankly, they are in terrible shape," he said. "The bodies have been lying there for days."

Many were found with no identification and are not recognizable, he added.

"There will be no visual identification, so we'll take fingerprints," he said. "If we can't get fingerprints, we're left the DNA."

He added that the federal government is sending in archivists to help with retrieval of dental records which may have been lost in the storm.

"It makes a difficult task even more difficult," he said.

Cataldie also put to rest rumors that some stranded evacuees who packed the convention center and Superdome had been murdered.

None of the 10 people who died at the Superdome or the four who died at the convention center were murdered, he said.

The people who died at the two shelters, he said, "were so fragile, quite honestly, they didn't make it without medical care."

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