And then there were 20. That's the official number of missing persons whose whereabouts are still unknown in this region of the Gulf Coast, according to Harrison County Coroner Gary Hargrove.
That number is a tiny portion of the more than 6,600 people still reported missing as a result of Hurricane Katrina, according to the National Center for Missing Adults, which is working with federal government to help account for the victims.
Hargrove's office is part of an ad hoc group put together shortly after Katrina hit with the goal of locating the missing in this southern Mississippi area. The group includes the Bureaus of Investigation from Mississippi, Kansas and Georgia; the U.S. Marshals, the Mississippi Alcohol Beverage Control Board, the FBI, the Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Team, the Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics and the Salvation Army.
"This kind of effort has never been done before," Hargrove said. "We've bonded together; everyone left their egos at the door," he said.
It's been a Herculean task; Hargrove started with a list "in the 1,300s" he said. But he ran into an early misstep. "Someone working for the task force posted a big list of missing to the Internet that I knew was incorrect," Hargrove said, but the listed hadn't yet been checked against other agencies. One immediate tip-off: "My daughter was on that list," he said, and he knew her whereabouts. That list was promptly removed until the task force had more reliable information.
Another early stumbling block came from an unlikely source: the Red Cross. "The Red Cross won't cooperate with anybody," Hargrove said. "Their help has been non-existent," he said. "But what goes around, comes around."
The Red Cross acknowledged it received a request from Hargrove's office to help narrow the missing list by checking names against those that might in a Red Cross shelter. Although the organization jealously guards the privacy of those in its shelters, Red Cross spokesman Mary Lee Conwell said the organization had been in the process of helping Hargrove.
"The list was being processed and we started to gather names but the effort fell through the cracks," Conwell said. "It was wickedly wild down here and it’s still a bit crazy down here," Conwell said. "Our first priority was to take care of the needs of the people at hand."
In times of "gigantic disasters" the Red Cross makes exceptions about access to those living in their shelters. "We will provide government officials with the names for purposes like the coroner's request," Conwell said. "We'll have to get back to the [Harrison County] coroner and see if we can patch this up," she said.
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