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Katrina's unclaimed dead conjure memories of her ravages

katrinabodiesNEW ORLEANS--A decade after one of the most deadly storms in U.S history, Hurricane Katrina's forgotten victims lie in 83 caskets entombed in black granite mausoleums behind the gothic gates of a New Orleans cemetery. Their visitors are mostly tourists.

Each metal coffin is marked with serial numbers inside and out, should anyone ever seek to bring one of them home. The names of 30 remain a mystery, but authorities have recorded details about their DNA and where each was found.

The unclaimed bodies were laid to rest in 2008, three years after the storm killed 1,833 along the U.S. Gulf Coast. On Saturday, 10 years to the day after Katrina's devastating landfall in Louisiana, city dignitaries will gather at the burial site, known as the Hurricane Katrina Memorial. Viewed from above, it resembles the shape of a hurricane.

"Nobody has ever come searching for their loved one in the memorial, as far as I know," said Dr. Frank Minyard, the longtime coroner of Orleans Parish, who helped to build the monument before retiring last year.

The stories of those buried inside remain unknown despite the exhaustive efforts of coroners who conducted autopsies on some 900 bodies recovered from around greater New Orleans. The local coroner's office was washed away in the flooding that submerged 80 percent of the city after Katrina's storm surge overwhelmed the local flood protections.

Bodies were taken by the hundreds to a warehouse without air-conditioning in St. Gabriel, Louisiana, outside Baton Rouge. As they worked under heat lamps, dehydrating medical examiners searched for ways to identify them.

By then, many were badly decomposed, and animals had removed fingers that might have provided crucial prints, recalled Dr. Louis Cataldie, the former coroner of East Baton Rouge Parish, who was appointed to oversee the statewide remains recovery effort. Still, a rewards card from Winn-Dixie supermarkets on one man's keychain led them to his relatives, who recognized the rings he was wearing.

An elderly woman, found wearing slippers with holes cut around her little toes, was brought back to family members who remembered how she snipped her shoes to accommodate arthritis.

Yet some people could never be identified by examiners who pored over unusual tattoos, bone fractures and teeth that were compared to dental X-rays recovered from moldy basement storage. "The mission wasn't completed," Cataldie said. "If there was one person that wasn't identified, it would still bother me."

After several months, Cataldie's team returned to the city the unclaimed bodies from New Orleans, where they were stored in another warehouse. Minyard, the coroner, wanted the bodies buried in a place where they could be easily retrieved, if anyone ever wanted one of them.

He worked with community leaders and local funeral home owners, who were troubled by talk of a mass burial or cremation, to raise more than $1 million in public and private funding for the memorial graves. "It was just a little heartless at that point," said Sandra Rhodes-Duncan, one of the leaders of the nonprofit that built the memorial and member of a family that has run a local funeral home for more than a century.

"You always have something to represent somebody's life," she added. In August 2008, funeral homes donated more than 30 hearses to carry the unclaimed victims to their final resting place, in what was formerly the Charity Hospital Cemetery.

At the cemetery, a red rose was placed on each casket, carried by volunteer pall bearers. Each victim was interred in individual graves within the mausoleums.

Each year since, a graveside ceremony has been held to mark the anniversary of Katrina. At last year's ceremony, Dr. Jeffrey Rouse, current coroner of Orleans Parish, spoke of the victims at a service marked by a clarinet's somber notes.

"They sit in silent watch," he said. "They sit in silent judgment."

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