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Wednesday, July 24, 2024

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Idenifying Katrina Victims by Dental Records

By Jack Fichter

CAPE MAY – While Dr. Robin Scheper spends most of her time examining the teeth of recruits at the Coast Guard Training Center here, she has a specialty that has sent her to the scene of two horrific disasters.
Scheper, who went to New York City after 9/11, arrived home here last week after 28 days near Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where she matched dental records with the bodies of vic-tims of Hurricane Katrina.
Scheper, a Public Health Service officer, was deployed to the Disaster Mortuary Operation Response Team (DMORT) which works with identification and recovery efforts of victims.
Identifying the dead from dental records is known as forensic odentology, she said. Scheper said it is the quickest and least expensive process of identifying the dead.
Scheper worked with a team of 16 dentists and other forensic workers 45 miles outside of New Orleans in St. Gabriel Parish. They were housed in a converted elementary school, she said.
A nearby warehouse was made into a temporary morgue.
The team checked bodies for personal effects, fingerprints, DNA, and dental records, said Scheper.
“There were essentially four stages and when they came to dental, we would take their X-rays and do dental charting,” she said.
When pre-death dental records were available, they were able to match them to bodies. X-rays from local dental offices were scanned into a computer system.
Before and after death dental X-rays were compared by dentists and dental hygienists. Success of the process was often dependent on the amount of dental work a person had, she said.
“If the person has a unique feature, a root canal on a molar and a crown on a premolar, then you can filter it out, just looking for those postmortem victims that have that particular thing,” said Scheper.
Families supplied the name of the dentists of their deceased loved ones to the Family As-sistance Center, which delivered the dental records to DMORT, she said.
Scheper was called to the scene a month after Hurricane Katrina struck. Many of the bod-ies no longer had fingerprints after spending days or weeks in flood waters and heat.
Commander Richard Firnhaber of Cape May also served at DMORT for two weeks.
The work will continue into February of 2006, said Scheper. A team of 150 continues the work of identifying the dead, at last count nearly 1,300.
She also spent two weeks identifying remains of World Trade Center victims from Sept. 20 to Oct. 4, 2001.
“The deployments were like night and day because in 9/11 everybody was sending us dental records because none of the dental offices were destroyed,” said Scheper.
She said many dental offices were destroyed by Katrina’s floodwaters.
Born in Ohio and raised in Clearwater, Fla., she was educated at Ohio State University. She joined the Public Health Service after graduating from dental school.
Scheper served two tours of duty with the Indian Health Service. In 2000, she joined the Health Resources and Services Administration in Rockville, Md., where she worked for four and a half years.
After taking a course in oral pathology that featured forensics from the Navy in 2000, she was called into service after 9/11.
Scheper said identifying World Trade Center victims was more emotionally difficult be-cause she walked by posters and photographs of the missing each day.
Scheper transferred to the Coast Guard Base in Cape May last year.
Contact Fichter at Jfichter@cmcherald.com

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