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Grim signs of Katrina's staggering toll

25,000 body bags arrive in New Orleans

By Ann O'Neill



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Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)

(CNN) -- As the floodwaters recede and the search for the dead begins, there are grim signs that authorities expect a staggering death toll from Hurricane Katrina.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency ordered 25,000 body bags for the New Orleans area. They were delivered to the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals, the agency charged with handling the remains.

FEMA's warehouse morgue in rural Saint Gabriel, about 70 miles from New Orleans, originally was set up to handle 1,000 bodies. Now, it's ready for 5,000.

New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin said he estimates as many as 10,000 people died in the city.

In Mississippi, where the official death toll climbed near 200, officials fear more than 1,000 people have died. Their remains will be examined at FEMA's morgue at Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi.

FEMA has dispatched Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Teams, known as DMORTs, to the Gulf -- to Louisiana and to Mississippi. Each team consists of 31 people, experts in the details of death -- funeral directors, medical examiners, coroners, pathologists, forensic anthropologists, fingerprint specialists, x-ray technicians and dental assistants.

Facing what could be an overwhelming number of corpses, the federal government is turning to outside help in unprecedented ways. FEMA hired Kenyon International Emergency Services, a Houston company that specializes in identifying and returning the remains of people killed in epic disasters.

Kenyon, for example, worked for the Australian government, identifying the remains of tourists killed in December when the tsunami swept over Thai resorts. Kenyon also helped identify passengers killed when a plane crashed into a Pennsylvania field during the September 11 attacks, company spokesman Jay Kirsch said.

About 70 of the company's forensic experts are in Louisiana, where Kenyon has set up a portable morgue, Kirsch said. A FEMA spokeswoman said Kenyon's experts will help federal authorities collect remains and mark the locations where they were found.

In another sign that the recovery and identification of bodies will take weeks, even months, the Department of Health and Human Services on Wednesday reached out to medical examiners from around the county. During a conference call, authorities discussed ways to recruit volunteer experts for two-week stints at the federal morgues.

"They're trying to come up with a contingency plan to recruit qualified people who are not DMORT members," said Randy Hanzlick, chief medical examiner for Fulton County, Georgia, and a member of the National Association of Medical Examiners.

Federal officials are looking for ways to break through red tape to bring in qualified forensic experts to relieve the FEMA teams during the protracted process of collecting and identifying the dead.

"It's going to be more of a marathon than a sprint," Hanzlick said.

Among the issues yet to be decided: Whether FEMA will waive its DMORT certification requirement and federalize the recruits. "We're waiting to hear back from them," Hanzlick said.

Another issue, said John Hunsaker, associate chief medical examiner for the state of Kentucky, is making sure the recruits are immunized against diseases such as West Nile virus or hepatitis.

"You don't want to make it worse when you go down there by getting sick," he said.

While the focus remains on body recovery, later it will will shift to identifying the remains, most likely through DNA matches since many of the bodies will be decomposed from exposure to heat and water.

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