BATON ROUGE- At the Find Family National Call Center in Baton Rouge, the steady hum of office work is interrupted almost five times every hour by the ringing of a bell. This bell signifies that a person who had been reported missing following Hurricane Katrina has been found alive.
According to Randall Lemoine, the Department of Health and Hospitals’ Director of Operations for the Call Center, the sound of the bell brings joy to the workers who otherwise deal only with people who are experiencing grief, discomfort and uncertainty.
“Talking to people who believe that a loved one has died, or who have been missing for three months is a difficult job that tests even those of us who understand mental health issues,” says Lemoine, a psychologist with DHH’s Office of Mental Health.
On Dec. 2, the Louisiana Department of Health reported the possibility that more than 4,800 people were classified as missing following Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. The number was derived from the total number of callers to the Find Family National Call Center who had completed a Victim Identification Packet (VIP form) and who had not been confirmed as found alive or deceased.
At that time, approximately 10,000 callers had completed VIP forms. Of those, only 5,200 of these initial callers had been accounted for; either having relocated from the New Orleans area and found alive, or identified as a deceased storm victim.
Statistics supplied today by the Call Center show a total of 10,524 callers who have completed the VIP forms, with 6,795 now accounted for (found alive or confirmed as deceased). This reduces the number of missing to 3,729 people.
The reduction is a result of work by the staff at the Call Center, under the leadership of Dr. Louis Cataldie, to track down and call people who had earlier contacted the Center to report a deceased or missing person. Daily, more than 1,000 of these return calls are made. Since early December, this work has resulted in more than 1,100 people being found alive.
Henry Yennie, deputy director of the Call Center, asks people who had contacted them in September or October, following the hurricanes, and who have since located their missing loved ones, to let the staff at the Center know of these discoveries.
“Although we suspect there will ultimately be a large number of people who remain missing due to the storms, indications are the final number will be much lower than what we are reporting today,” Yennie explained. “That’s because many people have relocated from one shelter to another, then to a hotel or
motel, then to a relative’s house or to a trailer. As they work to become settled, and as they make contact with a missing relative, they don’t think to call us back.”
Yennie added that’s why the Call Center staff continues to try and track down these original callers.
“Instead of receiving calls from people who are still reporting a missing person, the majority of our time is now spent trying to contact those people who originally called us, and attempting to get updated information from them. Still, it is extremely gratifying whenever we determine a missing person to be alive,” he said.
The Find Family National Call Center is the nationwide collection point and official coordination center for information on people missing from the storm or family members who may have perished. For the State of Louisiana, Dr. Cataldie serves as the center’s incident commander. The Center’s primary mission is to gather data from families in order to make a positive identification with individuals who perished during the storm.
The Find Family National Call Center’s toll-free phone number is 1-866-326-9393.