The makeshift morgue in this leveled town of 8,000 people is a parking lot on a narrow two-lane road that runs along some rusty train tracks. Six refrigerated trailers are lined up in neat parallel behind a chain-link fence.
For a week now Norma Stiglet, the county coroner, a grandmotherly woman with white hair and spectacles, has been identifying the decaying corpses of lifelong friends and neighbors who tried unsuccessfully to ride out Hurricane Katrina.
"It's almost indescribable, because I was born and raised with these people," Stiglet said Sunday, sitting by the trailers in a rickety folding chair. "You want to help them. But what can a coroner do?"
The official death toll in Mississippi is 150. The last official count in Hancock County, of which Bay St. Louis is part, stood at just 36, but that could be ludicrously deceptive. One law enforcement officer estimated it is more likely to be between 600 and 800. The residents are "in for a shock," he said. The reason the number is so low is that the state only counts bodies that have been recovered and positively identified.
For days, Stiglet was alone and besieged as she did her work. Finally, some organization is beginning to take shape: the Federal Emergency Management Agency's Disaster Mortuary Assistance Teams, or DMORTs, have begun to arrive with additional coroners. FEMA has coordinated with local law enforcement, and search-and-rescue units from around the country are conducting a grid search of the entire town, house by house.
After so many days, some of the discoveries are hideous. Stiglet refuses to talk about such matters. "We don't discuss that," she said.
But other officials describe the conditions frankly. Bodies have bloated, and heat, water and insects hasten their decomposition. A living person has an immune system with which to kill bacteria, but a deceased body has no protection. The bacteria population explodes. Some of the bodies are so badly decomposed they don't have fingerprints. Others are damaged or torn apart. "It's not at all pretty," said James Johnson, emergency operations coordinator. "They're finding pieces. If you find an arm, do you call it a body? It's pretty grisly."
What keeps people working in such circumstances? "In my opinion it's determination and love of your fellow man," Stiglet said.
Born and raised in the area, Stiglet has been the coroner for Hancock County since she was first elected in 1990, and must watch people she knows suffer the terrible uncertainty of loved ones unaccounted for. "It's hard, very hard on everyone, but it's harder on them than on me. And we just don't hardly have much info for people."
Sometimes, Stiglet cannot confirm the identity of the corpses. The density of the wreckage, the intensity of the heat, and the depth of the water and mud have combined to make identification a gruesome task. She tries to match a body with an address where it was found, or an object. "We're using the house numbers where they were found," she said. "We just never thought we'd see water like that."
The morgue sits on Central Avenue in the lot of the defunct Alcan Cable Co. Around it, nothing is standing. Just next door is the Garden of Memory Cemetery, where tombstones poke up through ground made sodden by floods. Farther down, four mangled houses lie pancaked on the railroad tracks. They were pushed there by a storm surge that was 25 feet high, and made the oak trees look like bushes. The huge, twisting, roundhouse punch Katrina delivered to the Bay St. Louis-Waveland area -- the two towns, separated imperceptibly, are located within a few miles of each other and linked by Central Avenue -- is evident in the collapsed roofs and the trees that lie split open, their bark wrenched nearly 360 degrees. Some of the roofs are marked in code with orange paint. The code indicates searchers found a body there.
The recovery effort was at first haphazard, conducted by volunteers and local law enforcement. When officials from FEMA arrived there were chain-of-command issues and confusion over Mississippi state laws for body recovery and identification. Also, communications in Bay St. Louis-Waveland are spotty. Cell phones do not work and radio traffic is jammed. "Running up and down the street on a four-wheeler, that's communication," Stiglet said.
The FEMA search and recovery teams follow poorly drawn maps. They put in 14-hour days, slogging through mud that is in some cases two feet deep, and climbing piles of debris, under a blazing hot sky. "You just line up and start walking, and find an odor," said Capt. Rob Trautwein, member of a unit from Hoover, Ala. "Seven days into this, your nose is your biggest clue."
Trautwein stood with the rest of his crew at the beach, trying to scrub the mud and nastiness from his boots with the salt water of the Mississippi Sound. Every now and then, amid the macabre discoveries, they are heartened to find a survivor. And, sometimes, more than one. One unit found 28 people in an attic. On Saturday evening, a Pennsylvania unit found two others, barely alive, clinging to a wrecked shrimp boat in a canal.
They find a lot of dead animals, but some live ones. The Hoover unit discovered a bedraggled and half-starved stray dog, and named him Lucky. They intend to take him home with their unit when they go. They also found a mud-encrusted kitten, and gently bathed her in the gulf waters.
On Saturday a search unit from Montgomery County, Md., brought in the body of a man in his sixties discovered after his neighbors smelled something rotting in the rubble on their street. He was wearing a life preserver.
The unit has been digging out bodies since Wednesday. But given the blasted wreckage confronting them, its commander, Chief John Tippett, 47, of Damascus, said he expected to find more. "There have been victims, but not as many as there could be," he said. "We've been very relieved at not finding larger losses of life."
On a given day, Tippett and his unit search 40 square blocks. When a body is discovered, they radio their command center at a Sonic fast-food stop on Highway 90, announcing their "find" along with their global positioning coordinates. The message is relayed up the chain of command to the Emergency Operations Center, and law enforcement and the county coroner are notified.
They then spray-paint the coordinates, along with a code indicating a death, in vivid orange paint somewhere on the location. They may use a door, or a roof. But sometimes there is nothing but splinters. So they spray-paint the street. An orange V or a D means there is a body.
Next, they take a couple of basic photographs for the coroner. "The photos are because they are overwhelmed, and it may take them a couple of days to recover the body," Tippett said. "And they like to see it as close to the time of death as possible." They look for anything that might help identify the body, whether a picture or an object.
At the Edmond Fahey Funeral Home in Bay St. Louis, Edmond Fahey is in no position to bury his neighbors. The ground is still too wet, the cemetery is a wreck, and there is no water or electricity in the town.
Fahey does not even have a dark suit. His home and possessions were lost in the hurricane. So were the homes of every member of his staff. On Monday, a week after the hurricane struck, he stood on the porch of the funeral parlor, shirtless, a stricken expression on his face. "Devastation is not a word to describe it," he said. "It's worse."
Fahey and his family have been conducting the town's funerals for three generations. He rode out the storm inside his funeral parlor, along with his staff, Stiglet and an embalmed body. They stayed because they suspected they would be needed. "People know where to find me," Stiglet says. "They know they can find me at the funeral home."
The parlor took on a lot of water, but it stood. Fahey and his staff have been living there ever since. "We've been in contact with a few families, but no funerals are arranged," Fahey said. "It'll be a while before we can conduct a service."
All his hearses are ruined. "They look good," Fahey said, "but they don't run." They stood parked at the curb, their engines dead.