I have been following the problem of dead bodies not being recovered in NOLA since Oct. 4th. I’ve done much reading and research and since it is STILL a problem (yes bodies remain still almost 8 months out) I continue to write about it. After reading about this I asked …just who the hell IS responsible to pick up the dead? As you’ll see the answer apparently is unbelievable…. No One.
History of Searches
On September 30, FEMA “announced that the Urban Search and Rescue Operations for the State of Louisiana were completed.” “The New Orleans Fire Department took charge of searches but had to stop in December when they ran out of money.” In February FEMA said it would fund searches and in March they sent their special operations team back in.
History of the Funding Dispute
On September 6th FEMA contacted Kenyon about collecting bodies. They started the job the next day though they didn’t sign a contract with FEMA. Trouble ensued immediately and Kenyon threatened to pull out. As a result, on September 13, Gov. Blanco announced this….
“Yesterday, Kenyon officials told me that if things don’t change, they would leave as soon as they could professionally pull out,” Blanco said. “While recovery of bodies is a FEMA responsibility, I cannot stand by while this vital operation is not being handled appropriately. In death, as in life, our people deserve more respect than they have received.
So Gov. Blanco had the state of Louisiana take over the contract. FEMA spokesman David Passey had this to say at the time…
`The collection of bodies is not normally a FEMA responsibility,” he said.
NPR goes more in depth with interviews with Kenyon’s CEO and a FEMA official in which the FEMA official threw out whatever would stick to explain the situation including it’s a state and local responsibility, blaming Kenyon for trying to get a better deal out of the state of LA and finally blaming LA for not requesting funds for body recovery PRIOR to the hurricane. On September 11 Kenyon wrote Vice Admiral Thad Allen saying they were no longer interested in a FEMA contract due to “numerous roadblocks, hindrances and interferences.“ But also included in this piece is the following.…
[Michael] Brown admitted that FEMA had no contingency contract for the recovery of dead bodies and that it was a mistake.
That it was a mistake is probably the only thing that is clear given almost 8 months later there are still bodies remaining in NOLA. When FEMA released its Katrina performance review last Friday I was hoping to find this problem would be addressed in one of the final 38 recommendations so this would not occur again. However I found no such recommendation or even a discussion of the problem of body recovery in the report.
Back in October Robert Johannessen, spokesman for the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals had this to say in an October WaPo article that addressed among other things the questions regarding collecting bodies.….
“I am not aware of any document out there that says whose responsibility it is.”
My research would indicate he is right.
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I read the Stafford Act, the National Response Plan (NRP) and the Gulf Coast Recovery Act which are the documents that deal with disaster response in the main and Katrina in particular. There appears to be a big hole in disaster response. No one appears to be responsible for finding and collecting dead people. The NRP does call for search and rescue. FEMA’s Urban Search and Rescue teams conduct searches “until it is determined that no victims could possibly be alive.”
The NRP also calls for “transporting” casualties and providing various “mortuary services” for casualties. However I did not see any delineation for actually finding and collecting of the bodies of dead human beings. FEMA’s review discusses the use of military in search and rescue but there were problems there as Mr. Rumsfeld wasn‘t forthcoming in authorizing support and the whole question of the military in such a role. (see page 72) The review also mentioned funeral and burial costs as well as removing animal carcasses and hazardous contaminants. The EPA is assigned the “disposal of rotting, decaying putrescible type matter.” But that is not bodies. The Stafford Act is clear on debris removal and addresses search and rescue but there again does not lay out funding for finding and picking up dead bodies. Of course if we were to classify the dead as debris the job would most certainly have been covered. On the other hand the purpose of the Stafford Act was to provide federal assistance when states are overwhelmed by a disaster and they do have up to 30 days to make requests for assistance. So Louisiana would appear correct in maintaining FEMA should be responsible.
So it’s one of those occurrences in the blame game where both sides apparently are correct and the upshot is NO ONE IS RESPONSIBLE FOR COLLECTING THE DEAD AFTER A DISASTER.
I do think the state of Louisiana has a stronger argument however given the spirit and intent of the Stafford Act as well as the option for a 30 day extension to request help. But until the issue of who has responsibility is addressed the problem remains for future disasters and so do the bodies in NOLA at present.
It’s a remarkably American blind spot that apparently no one has considered and delineated the mechanics and responsibility of actually finding and collecting the dead. I’m struck by a Pleasantville-esque notion of America where all kittens are rescued from trees and no one dies in a disaster. However we have lost almost 5000 people in Bush’s America between 9/11 and Katrina. I think it is time we codify a few things. But that would require talking about this and I’ve not seen much of that.