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WHEN DISASTER STRIKES
Fingerprint Team Always on Call

02/08/06

FBI Disaster Squad in Saint Gabriel, Louisiana
Members of the Disaster Squad set up a makeshift mortuary in St. Gabriel, Louisiana

In the days and weeks after Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast the FBI did what comes natural to first responders-we went to the heart of the stricken area. Early on, agents aided a debilitated police force in New Orleans. Soon after, agents and analysts teamed with local authorities in the region to stem the swelling tide of scams preying on storm victims.

Throughout the ordeal, as floodwaters receded and the death toll rose, the FBI's Disaster Squad-a team of highly trained forensic examiners from the FBI Laboratory in Quantico, Virginia-performed the grim task of identifying the bodies left in Katrina's wake.

In the two months following Katrina, members of the Disaster Squad examined 816 victims. With help from personnel from the Criminal Justice Information Services (CJIS) Division's Fly Away Identification Team (FAIT) and the Louisiana State Police, 155 bodies were positively identified through fingerprints. Efforts to identify the remaining victims are continuing at the FBI Laboratory, where experts in the Latent Print Operations and Support Units try to link victims' prints with known fingerprints culled by other federal, state, and local agencies.

The Disaster Squad’s role dates back 65 years to the summer of 1940, when a plane crash in Virginia—and the ensuing logistical confusion—revealed the need for a team of experts who could travel to disaster scenes anywhere in the world to coordinate recovery efforts with local officials. Past cases include the Oklahoma City bombing, the space shuttle explosions, the USS Cole bombing in Yemen, the 9/11 attacks, and tsunami recovery efforts last year in Thailand, where they coordinated with victim identification teams from 31 countries to help identify 8,000 victims there.

After Katrina hit, the Disaster Squad was deployed to Baton Rouge, along with personnel from the Fly Away Team, which scans and digitizes fingerprints and provides remote access to the FBI’s database of more than 48 million fingerprints. On the ground, the Disaster Squad coordinated with DEA fingerprint specialists and the Louisiana State Police Crime Laboratory. Squad members stayed in makeshift quarters—abandoned World War II-era barracks, camper trailers offered by local church parishioners, and an apartment donated by a local couple who wanted to help with relief efforts.

A makeshift mortuary was established in nearby St. Gabriel, Louisiana, where the squad worked rotating shifts for eight weeks to obtain identifiable fingerprints from bodies badly affected by the extreme heat and floodwaters. Once retrieved, the prints were given to CJIS fingerprint experts, who scanned and searched them against prints on file at their fingerprint facility in West Virginia. Copies of the prints were also searched against Louisiana's own fingerprint database, which contains some prints not on file with the FBI and led to several positive IDs.

To date, not including 9/11 and the tsunami in 2004, the Disaster Squad has assisted in 230 disasters involving 10,687 victims. It has positively identified 6,809 victims (64 percent) by fingerprints, palm prints, or footprints.

Working on disasters, though, is only a small part of their duties. The squad's 49 members-each having trained for nearly two years in fingerprint science to meet the select team's requirements-are kept busy analyzing latent (hidden) prints submitted by law enforcement agencies across the country and training our federal, state, and local partners on latent print collection.

Links: Katrina Coverage | FBI Laboratory | Criminal Justice Information Services