On Aug. 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina made landfall on the Louisiana/Mississippi Gulf coast, drowning this delta area, once so rich in culture and life.
In the wake of the storm, thousands of victims were left with questions — where do I go? What do I do? Where can I eat and sleep?
But for some, the most harrowing question of all was the one that needed the quickest answer — where is my missing loved one?
“As soon as I heard Katrina had hit right there, I got together with Steve (Gammon) and Linda LaRose to make sure we had everything together — DNA reference sample collection kits and ready to mail out to anyone who asked for them,” said George Adams, program project manager for the University of North Texas Center for Human Identification. “We were ready to go in under 24 hours.”
The lab’s quick action was a relief to Deedra Hughes, DNA technical leader for the Mississippi Crime Lab in Jackson, Miss., who said the disaster left her to answer questions from people who were missing loved ones.
The fated day
“That first day, I was here, and it was constant phone calls coming in — ‘What do we do? Where do we give samples?’” Hughes said. “It was heartbreaking. I was here crying on the phone because the calls didn’t stop.
“All of our agencies were searching and collecting bodies before they deteriorated. We had no idea who was going to do the testing and identification or how it was going to get done.
“The state of Mississippi does not have a DNA collection kit in place. We don’t have anything for collecting remains for DNA identification. We didn’t have time to piecemeal a kit or purchase what we needed for kits. That wasn’t an option.”
UNTCHI steps in to help
When Adams called and let Hughes know the kits were ready to be sent, she said she asked for them immediately.
“They (the Center for Human Identification at the UNT Health Science Center) stepped in and said, ‘Hey, we’re here,’” she said. “I was overwhelmed. It was a burden lifted to know the kits were there and were ready and uniform. And to pick up the phone and have a contact — to have George — was just such a relief. They stepped in when it was total chaos and made it easier.”
Samples from 389 persons missing from Mississippi were sent to UNTCHI, and all of the DNA analysis for them was done free of charge — the testing was funded by the National Institute of Justice (NIJ).
“Mississippi was the only state who took us up on the offer for DNA kits,” Adams said. “Deedra collected the samples and sent them to us, and we turned them around in short order under direction of the NIJ. They told us to make these cases top priority.”
Hughes said people in the DNA lab also made themselves available to help her answer questions for the families waiting to hear about missing loved ones.
“I called after hours. I called on Saturdays. I left messages for Artie (Eisenberg, director of the DNA Lab),” she said. “We had upset family members who wanted testing rushed, so I would call the Center and apologize because we didn’t want to bother them, but asking, ‘Is there any way you could rush this?’ They were right on top of it. Not one time did they say ‘no’ to anything that we asked. It was just such a relief.”
Hurricane Katrina killed nearly 2,000 people in Mississippi and Louisiana.
In case it happens again
Adams said the lab always has 1,000 DNA sample collection kits on hand for just such a disaster, should something similar happen.
“We try to keep an inventory for a mass disaster,” he said. “We can send them anywhere in the country — we should be able to respond as long as we have an address to send them to. As soon as a natural disaster hits, we’re ready to roll anywhere in the country.”
Hughes said she finds the UNTCHI’s willingness to help at such times a comfort.
“I don’t know how they get their funding, but to have a central lab that the whole country can depend on is needed,” she said. “To have a staff dedicated to work on human remains and samples is needed. Because crime labs can’t do this work alone — we couldn’t have done this work alone. I don’t know where their funding comes from, but they need to keep funding it, because this service is needed.”
The UNTCHI receives federal NIJ, Federal Bureau of Investigation and Department of Justice funds, as well as money from the State of Texas for work on missing persons cases. It is one of only three centers dedicated to missing persons DNA analysis in the U.S., and the only academic institution with authorization to upload information into the national Combined DNA Index System (CODIS). In addition to its work with federal, state and local law enforcement, the UNTCHI in Fort Worth, Texas,it also provides all of the missing persons work for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
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