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COLLECTING LOUISIANA'S DEAD

by Brooke Shelby BiggsSpecial to CorpWatch
August 16th, 2006

Immediately following Hurricane Katrina’s landfall, it became morbidly clear that one of the more urgent and unpleasant jobs was collecting the 1,000-plus bodies floating in public streets and trapped in broiling attics in New Orleans. About a week after the hurricane, employees of Kenyon International Emergency Services were on the ground in the city — at the behest of the Federal Emergency Management Agency — collecting human remains and transporting them in refrigerated trucks to a temporary morgue in St. Gabriel, 70 miles west of New Orleans. Two months later, Kenyon had pulled up stakes, and billed the State of Louisiana more than $6 million for collecting 535 bodies. (79)

In its first days in New Orleans, Kenyon was recovering bodies while trying to hammer out a written contract with FEMA. For reasons that none of the parties will delve into, an agreement couldn’t be met. Meanwhile, both FEMA’s emergency mortuary personnel and Kenyon were bombarded with anger and criticism as television news crews seemed to find bodies more efficiently than the remains-recovery teams.

Frustrated by the slow pace of negotiations and the resulting slow recovery operation, Governor Kathleen Blanco blasted FEMA and moved to contract with Kenyon directly. “I could not bear to wait any longer,” she said in a press release at the time.

Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals Robert Johannessen says the state didn’t have time to shop around for a good deal. “They were here, they had experience, and they had the federal stamp of approval,” he said of Kenyon. The contract was signed on Sept. 12, 2005, two weeks to the day after Katrina struck. (80)

Almost immediately, Kenyon began running up questionable bills, such as $1,400 worth of beef jerky, and hundreds of dollars for model cars and the glue to assemble them. The company also billed the state for a DVD player, a microwave oven, and table lamps. (81) Each of its “search and recovery specialists” cost the state $800 a day, according to the contract, and five senior managers each pulled down between $1,000 and $1,800 each day. (82)

And the questions lingered: why was it taking so long to recover bodies, why were they still being found weeks and months later, and why were so many going unidentified for so long? New Orleanians were pestering the DHH for answers and help, sometimes calling multiple times to tell the state that they believed there were bodies at specific addresses. (83) When Kenyon left in mid- November, followup on these calls fell again to the state, according to Johannessen. DHH works with the New Orleans Fire Department, and cadaver dogs brought in at great expense from around the country to search likely sites for remains.

Dozens of bodies continue to be found in the attics where they have lingered for an entire year.

So what did Louisiana and FEMA get for the millions they promised to Kenyon?

A SCANDALOUS PAST


Kenyon International Emergency Services is a wholly owned subsidiary of Service Corporation International (SCI), a funeral services firm based in Texas. SCI is helmed by Robert Waltrip, a close family friend of the Bush clan and a major donor to George W. Bush’s gubernatorial and presidential campaigns.

SCI has been embroiled in a number of high-profile scandals in recent years, including one in which a subsidiary was discovered to be recycling crypts and dumping bodies in a wooded area behind a Jewish cemetery in Florida. The firm was also at the center of an influence peddling investigation in Texas in 1999, when the executive director of the Texas Funeral Service Commission was allegedly fired for launching an investigation into SCI’s apparent practice of using unlicensed embalmers in the state. The commissioner, Eliza May, maintained that she was punished for targeting a top supporter of then-Governor Bush just before his first presidential election campaign.

Waltrip and a top attorney for SCI hand-delivered a message to Bush demanding that Bush step in to halt the investigation. (84) The attorney, Johnnie B. Rogers, told Newsweek magazine that he and Waltrip met with former FEMA chief and then-Bush campaign chairman Joseph Allbaugh the same day, and that Bush poked his head into the meeting to say to Waltrip, “Hey Bobby, are those people still messing with you?” (85) Bush has denied that he intervened on Waltrip’s behalf. A judge spared Bush the embarrassment of testifying in May’s suit, which he dismissed as “frivolous.” (86) SCI ended up settling the complaint over the embalmers for $55,000 (the state of Texas settled May’s whistleblower suit for $155,000). (87)

However, the Newsweek article prompted speculation that Bush had lied under oath in an affidavit in the May case, because he stated that he had never spoken to SCI executives with regard to the embalming investigation.

More recently, Kenyon has been the focus of fury in Australia, where a scandal has erupted over that country’s first soldier to die in Iraq, and how his body was somehow misidentified and switched with a deceased Bosnian civilian contractor’s. The wrong body was shipped to the soldier’s family before the error was discovered. Kenyon, who has contracted with the Australian military to handle its war dead, has denied responsibility for the mix-up, and says the error was not committed by its personnel, implying it was the fault of Australian military personnel. (88)

BLACK MORTUARIES

In New Orleans as perhaps nowhere else, death is cause for celebration. Traditional jazz funerals are closely held rituals, originating among the city’s African-American population. Until very recently, white-owned funeral homes refused to handle the black dead. Family-owned black funeral homes are institutions in the city, where some have buried multiple generations of local families. (89)

When Katrina struck, a number of black mortuary owners whose businesses were undamaged attempted to volunteer their services — from body recovery and identification to embalming at their establishments — to the state and to FEMA, but to no avail. (90) Federal and state authorities have told volunteers that their efforts might cause bureaucratic and liability headaches

None of the 14 black-owned funeral homes won any of the 300- odd subcontracts awarded local funeral homes to bury the bodies recovered and processed by Kenyon. (91)

But some local black morticians think they are being frozen out for another reason: SCI, which owns Kenyon, is the country’s largest operator of funeral homes and cemeteries, and would like nothing more than to run the few remaining independents out of business. (SCI does not, however, own any mortuaries in the greater New Orleans region).

BODIES STILL UNIDENTIFIED

Frank Minyard, coroner for Orleans Parish, said Kenyon failed to collect basic identifying information for the bodies it collected — addresses where the body was found, any nearby bills or other indicators of identity, or even details about the condition of the body when it was found which might help pinpoint time of death — all of which slowed the process of identifying victims

Dozens of bodies remain unidentified still. (92)

The failure of the identification system as a whole lead to more wrenching, unanswered questions. Bodies were returned to families with absurd death certificates listing incorrect addresses and causes of death such as “decomposition.” (93)

Louisiana’s State Medical Examiner, Louis Cataldie told CorpWatch that the state was happy with Kenyon’s work. “I found Kenyon to be user friendly. They responded to the chain of command, always communicated promptly, addressed problems immediately and did not try to conceal any issues from me. I went into the field with them several times and was well pleased with their professionalism. ... I would strongly endorse utilizing them again should that unfortunate occasion arise.” (94) Louisiana is in ongoing negotiations with federal agencies to recoup expenses related to Katrina clean-up, and its hasty contract with Kenyon will likely be among them. It is unclear whether FEMA or the DHS will subject any costs passed on by the state to an additional audit before reimbursement.

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