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Morgue boss: 'These are horrible times'

Katrina qualifies as the third deadliest storm in U.S. history



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Hurricane Katrina

(CNN) -- Louisiana officials believe they can identify about half of the 783 bodies brought so far to the St. Gabriel morgue.

But four weeks after Hurricane Katrina, they have released the remains of just 32 people to family members, the state's chief medical examiner said Wednesday.

Dr. Louis Cataldie, Louisiana's emergency response medical director, told reporters in Baton Rouge the process is delayed because autopsies must be conducted on people found in nursing homes and hospitals.

The autopsies were ordered under the state attorney general's investigation into whether patients were abandoned as the hurricane came ashore and the water rose on August 29 and 30.

Making positive identifications also is slow because flood water carried some of New Orleans' dead away from their neighborhoods. The corpses are in poor condition after being exposed to the elements for weeks.

"The condition in which the poor individuals are coming in, it's tough," Cataldie said.

He acknowledged that the delay is agonizing for relatives, but added he knew of no way to speed up the painstaking work of identifying the dead and preserving evidence of possible crimes.

"If I had a child in that morgue, it would be horrible, absolutely. These are horrible times and its extremely frustrating," Cataldie said. But, he cautioned, "to speed up the process would contaminate the process."

First, a 'presumptive' identity

Cataldie said families are notified when a "presumptive" identification is made, but the remains are not released until officials are certain. Confirmation can be made using medical and dental records, X-rays and DNA samples.

Once the autopsy is completed and the identification confirmed, funeral homes collect the remains, Cataldie said. Unclaimed bodies will be buried in a cemetery near Carville, he added.

"It's going to have a chapel and a place where people can have some healing," he said. "I think we're all going to need to have some healing."

Louisiana's death toll stood Wednesday at 896. Katrina has claimed a total of 1,130 lives in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida and Georgia -- making it the third deadliest storm in U.S. history.

A Category 4 storm killed an estimated 8,000 people in Galveston, Texas, in 1900. Another storm killed 1,836 people in South Florida 28 years later.

Murder reports unfounded

As he had a week earlier, Cataldie stressed again Wednesday that none of the 10 people who died at the New Orleans Superdome, or the four who died at the convention center, had been murdered.

Six or seven people were murdered in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, he said.

Hurricane Rita slowed the body recovery, but the remains of 10 people were brought in Tuesday, Cataldie said. He expects the death toll to rise as flooded areas of New Orleans' 9th Ward are searched more thoroughly.

"We're going to ultimately find more folks in the most heavily flooded areas in New Orleans," Cataldie said. "I'm hoping we won't, but I'm thinking we will."

Neighborhoods closest to the fractured levees that bore the force of the flood had just been drained when Rita caused the area to flood again. Bodies still scattered around homes and in streets were again covered in water and muck several feet deep. (See the shambles of the 9th Ward -- 3:43)

Authorities said Rita's renewed flooding has set back the body search by two to three weeks.

Cataldie said he knew of at least one corpse still buried under the debris of four collapsed homes.

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