On Thursday, June 8th, SEMA (State Emergency Management Agency) hosted a daylong Mass Fatalities Planning and Response for Rural Communities course in West Plains at the Howell County Health Department. Representing Texas County were Jackie Smith, TCHD Administrator and Marie Lasater, Texas County Coroner.
Arbie Goings of Louisiana, a veteran of several mass fatalities including Katrina, Haiti, and 911, led the class. Although Texas County fortunately had no fatalities, the course was particularly timely in view of our recent once in a millennium flooding.
In addition to being a SEMA instructor, Goings is also a funeral home director. He reminded the group that with the recent Disaster declaration that includes Texas County, private cemeteries are covered for any flood damage up to $6000.00, a fact of which many were unaware. In Louisiana, where it is customary to bury folks above ground, the floods have carried many caskets away, and Goings has been involved with making sure that displaced decedents are reinterred properly.
It is a fact of almost all mass fatalities that many more are reported missing than are actually deceased. For example, 13,197 people were reported missing in Katrina, but only 910 bodies we recovered. Many organizations have missing person’s registrars, such as the American Red Cross program “Safe and Well,” but law enforcement is the number one entity for tracking missing persons, so they should be notified first in a disaster.
A large part of mass fatality management consists of making positive identification of retrieved bodies. Identification begins at the scene. Although clothing, jewelry, tattoos, ID documents and the like can be helpful, a secondary identifier is essential. In 911, 2 people were recovered with identification that didn’t belong to them. DNA takes time, up to several months, but it is the gold standard in ensuring proper identification. Ironically, most DNA is sent to Bosnia for processing. Due to the many mass killings in that country, they have the most well equipped and sophisticated labs in the world.
Louisiana State University has a superlative anthropology program, and it is the home of FACES – Forensic Anthropology and Computer Enhancement Services. All services are FREE, and recognizable facial features can be reconstructed from skeletal remains with astonishing likeness, aiding in identification.
One aspect of mass fatality management is morgue availability. A Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Team or DMORT is a team of experts in the fields of victim identification and mortuary services. DMORTs are activated in response to large-scale disasters in the U.S. to assist in the identification of deceased individuals and storage of the bodies pending the bodies being claimed. The DMORT team was last deployed in Missouri following the Joplin tornado that claimed 158 lives.
Critical to any mass fatality response are Family Assistance Centers. These centers are invaluable for the passing of information both ways – both updating the families on the status of rescue and recovery efforts, and obtaining information from the families that will aid in identification of victims.
While the possibility of needing these extensive services may seem remote, the scenario was a reality with the 2011 Joplin tornado. Experts are warning of a possible 7.0 plus earthquake in the New Madrid Seismic zone. It pays to be prepared.