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Three months later, DNA tests to start on Katrina bodies

More than 200 bodies still unidentified, officials say

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Two bodies were found in this New Orleans house Monday, more than three months after Katrina struck.

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

NEW ORLEANS, Louisiana (CNN) -- DNA testing is to begin immediately on hundreds of still unidentified bodies found in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Louisiana officials said, easing anguish for survivors awaiting word on their missing loved ones.

The state coroner's office announced Monday that companies have been hired to conduct the tests, and Louisiana State Police spokesman Lawrence McLeary said "testing should begin immediately."

New Orleans' coroner Dr. Frank Minyard expressed frustration last week that genetic tests on 263 bodies from the August 29 storm had not yet begun. (Full story)

More than three months after the storm, bodies are still being found -- as a friend of 88-year-old Antonio Jackson so grimly discovered on Monday in New Orleans. (Watch loved ones describe the horror of finding Jackson's body in her home -- 2:11)

"It seems like the storms attributed to Katrina never stop. We're still finding bodies," said Oliver Thomas, of the New Orleans City Council on Tuesday.

"We can't seem to put the worst of this behind us to even get to rebuilding. It's just a very, very, very bad, desperate situation down here."

Identification method 'of last resort''

Scientists use the tests to match genetic DNA material from the bodies with DNA taken from close relatives or from personal effects of the missing.

Hundreds of people with missing relatives have provided mouth swabs or other DNA materials for use in the tests, said Bob Johannessen, spokesman for the state coroner, Dr. Louis Cataldie.

"By the end of this year, we should have made significant progress" toward identifying many of the victims, Johannessen said.

The spokesman said examiners already have good leads on the identities of 140 of the victims. The rest, even with DNA testing, will be like "searching for a needle in a haystack," he said.

At one point, the state coroner had 897 unidentified bodies whose deaths were blamed on Katrina. By October 14, 150 bodies had been identified. The storm is blamed for more than 1,200 deaths across the Gulf Coast -- more than 1,000 of them in Louisiana.

Recently the pace of identifying victims has increased considerably, despite the inability to begin genetic matching. DNA testing, Johannessen said, is the identification method "of last resort."

Funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency will pay for the DNA testing, he said.

Several different companies will take care of the various tests that must be conducted. State Police awarded the project management contract to Dr. Amanda Sozer of Sozer, Niezgoda and Associates of Annandale, Virginia.

A FEMA spokeswoman said in November that DNA testing was always meant to be the last resort in identifying bodies, after all other levels of forensics procedures. By mid-November it was decided that point had been reached, she said.

FEMA then asked the state if it wanted the federal government to sign up DNA testing contractors -- a process that would take two months to set up -- or if the state wanted to do it, which would allow work to begin sooner.

The only other difference, FEMA said, was that if the state handled it, at some point the federal reimbursement level could drop from 100 percent to 90 percent. If the federal government handled it reimbursement would remain at 100 percent throughout. The state opted to handle signing up contractors, FEMA said

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