UF forensic scientist will help deal with the mass casualties in Haiti

The first step will be to set up a portable mortuary in Haiti.

Published: Saturday, January 16, 2010 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 15, 2010 at 6:32 p.m.

A University of Florida forensic scientist is now in Port-au-Prince, part of a federal team assessing how best to deal with the thousands of dead in Haiti's capital city.

The Red Cross estimates that 50,000 or more residents died in the 7.0-magnitude earthquake that struck Haiti on Tuesday around 5 p.m.

Jason Byrd is a forensic entomologist with the William R. Maples Center for Forensic Medicine. He left Thursday for Haiti.

The Disaster Mortuary Operations Response Team, or DMORT, is part of a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services program that assists in recovering and identifying bodies after a mass casualty incident.

Forensic anthropologist Michael Warren, director of the C.A. Pound Human Identification Laboratory at UF, says the DMORT advance group's first step will be to set up a portable mortuary and assistance center for Haitians with missing family members.

"But where do you set that up, and how do you begin to contact people?" he asked. "It's going to be extremely difficult, starting from the logistics of getting the mortuary and the team members in there."

One way to identify the dead is to compare findings from the deceased with medical and dental records, Warren said.

In the case of Haiti, the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, even that will present a problem.

"Most residents have never seen a doctor or a dentist," he said. "If they have, those records are probably buried under collapsed buildings."

The goal will be to set up a processing center where people can report a missing family member. The team will collect information and DNA samples, but the process of identification through DNA is an expensive one.

"Any kind of disaster response is contingent on the resources you can throw at it, and Haiti doesn't have those resources," Warren explained.

"I think they will decide the identification of victims is not the most urgent issue, when the money is needed to set up medical clinics and schools and meet other basic needs," he said.

Warren noted that Byrd and the advance team are trying to figure out the best approach.

"We will probably find a place to bury the dead, identified by number and with a DNA sample from each, and try to identify them at a later date," Warren said. "That will take money and time, and I am not sure the Haitian government has the resources to even think about it."

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