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Environment

Hurricane Katrina Disaster Detectives Use DNA to Identify Victims

National forensics experts draw on World Trade Center tragedy to better respond to devastation in New Orleans.

By Amos KenigsbergJune 15, 2006 5:00 AM

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As floodwater slowly drained from Louisiana last fall, state authorities began the macabre task of identifying the hundreds of dead bodies it left behind. Many of the corpses were far from their homes and highly decomposed. Officials knew they could only identify them with DNA, although even that approach would be hampered by the scope of the destruction. So Louisiana drew on people with expertise from another mass disaster: the destruction of the World Trade Center.

"Most of us hoped it was a once-in-a-lifetime event," says Joan Bailey-Wilson, a geneticist who worked on identification at the WTC. "But sadly it was not."

After 9/11, the National Institute of Justice convened an expert panel of geneticists to help city and state officials identify the dead. Many of those panel members, such as Bailey-Wilson, returned for another tour of duty with a group organized after Katrina, and their experience gave a head start to that effort.

Louisiana officials knew from the get-go to send genetic counselors rather than police officers to interview the families of missing people; in WTC investigations, people trained to work with families turned up more accurate information. Experts from 9/11 had also created a pamphlet explaining DNA identification in lay terms, and genetic counselors working on Katrina used it to explain to family members how swabbing their cheeks could help find their loved ones. And DNA-View, a computer program used to match genetic samples of dead bodies with their living relatives, had been greatly refined and expanded during the WTC work.

While the disaster detectives hope their skills in mass-fatality identification can now be forever retired, they're remaining prepared for the worst. About a month before 9/11, the Federal Emergency Management Agency predicted that the three biggest national disaster threats were a terrorist attack in New York City, a flood breeching New Orleans' levees, and a powerful earthquake striking San Francisco. So California officials recently sent personnel to Louisiana, both to help that effort and to get practice in state-of-the-art disaster identification. That experience won't stop an earthquake, but it could help begin the recovery sooner.

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