BATON ROUGE, La. -- On March 1, 2006, the Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Team (DMORT) closed down its primary operations in Louisiana. DMORT, a program of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), assists local authorities when requested during a mass fatality incident. Mortuary affairs, such as body location, recovery and identification, are typically state or local responsibilities; but after Hurricane Katrina, overwhelmed Parish coroners turned to federal DMORT teams for assistance with these duties.
A full forensic laboratory and identification center staffed with DMORT teams of doctors, morticians, anthropologists, dentists and forensic scientists was established on August 28, 2005, in the tiny town of St. Gabriel, about 70 miles west of New Orleans. They began a tireless six-month effort to help the state of Louisiana identify the remains of people whose bodies were found after Katrina, or were disinterred from local cemeteries during the floods.
Hurricane Katrina DMORT Operations Section Chief Chuck Smith stressed the intense commitment and compassion of DMORT team members during this response. A death investigator for 25 years before he came to DMORT over a decade ago, Smith said, "People always get attached to this operation. The team members work, sleep, and eat in close quarters in a very emotional situation that bonds everyone closely to the mission and each other."
Chuck Smith explained DMORT specialists' work ethic during disaster response: "There is a misconception that comes from TV shows depicting a cavalier attitude in the morgue that could not be further from the truth." Smith said. "These people understand what they have been asked to do and they handle the victims the way they would want their own families handled."
Smith stressed how DMORT team members always maintain the highest levels of compassionate care for the deceased and treat each victim of Hurricane Katrina "like their own mother or brother." If an individual was positively identified at the morgue, that person would be referred to by name during the rest of the DMORT process. When remains were prepared for release from the morgue, team members would typically gather and say a prayer as a final goodbye.
Over the past six months, approximately 1,000 DMORT team members with a variety of specialties such as pathology, dental identification, and personal effects identification worked in the morgue. Because of the high level of expertise in these fields, the entire DMORT cadre consists of only about 1,200 individuals nationwide. "This has really been a manpower intensive mission," Incident Commander Chuck Smith said.
"Even though they are spread out, DMORT is really one huge team," Smith explained. As soon as the scope of the disaster became apparent, most DMORT team members headed to Louisiana. "By the first week of November," he said, "we had already deployed at least one person from each state including Alaska and Hawaii."
Smith explained how DMORT work brings out a level of commitment unusual for other professions. He explained how even at a considerable discomfort to themselves, "people made extraordinary commitments". Smith described long hours in remote locations, the daily required bio-hazard suits, and how most team members were on leave from lucrative occupations at home. Even with the discomforts, their compassion for victims' families and the large predicted workload led some dedicated members to offer their valuable time for months on end instead of the typical two-week deployment.
In early September the projected casualties from Hurricane Katrina were extremely high. With these predictions, federal officials began work on a new state-of-the-art facility in nearby Carville to identify the numerous fatalities. "I never thought we'd be out of he...