"DMort is telling us to expect up to 40,000 bodies," Dan Buckner said, quoting officials with the Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Team, a volunteer arm of Homeland Security.
His partner, Dan Hicks, of Paducah, Ky., was deployed Monday. Buckner, of Dickson, is on standby. Their funeral home is one of several collection sites for donations to be taken to the Red Cross in Fayetteville on Wednesday for transfer to places in need.
The 40,000 estimate does "not include the number of disinterred remains that have been displaced from ... mausoleums," Buckner told the Times-Gazette Monday.
Since New Orleans is below sea level, in-ground burial is impossible.
Public health protection and identification of bodies are tasks for DMort, Buckner said. Teams include morticians, medical examiners, coroners, pathologists, anthropologists, odontologists, dental assistants, photographers, police, DNA, X-ray, evidence, fingerprint, mental health and computer specialists, and others such as heavy equipment operators.
"Until they search each and every remaining house and remove all the fallen materials ... they will not know how many people are there," Buckner said.
"The National Association of Funeral Directors and Embalmers will be making assignments to coordinate with local officials ... [for] preparation of bodies," he said. "They'll probably establish a mortuary there where bodies can be taken so forensics can identify bodies and families can decide what they want to do.
"My personal opinion is they will be recovering bodies for 30 ... to 120 days," Buckner said.
That's because of "the sheer destruction, the rubble that will have to be removed and to find bodies in attics and yards and the water," he said. People "were told to go to their attic. Then the water came up and they had no way to escape.
"Firemen chopped holes in roofs and found bodies."
Without anything to do for them, they moved on, he said.
Public health is "definitely" a major concern as time goes on, Buckner said.
He anticipated volunteers would serve for two weeks and then be relieved as a rotation schedule is developed.
Buckner, 67, attended a funeral directors association conference in Chicago where he received training so he might be prepared for such work. He's been in the mortuary business for 45 years.
"I feel a moral obligation to help people," Buckner said. "We serve people in dire need and if ever there was a time when people need ... it's now."
He anticipates the emergency mortuary will receive bodies from national guardsmen, fire fighters and others such as rescue squad teams.
DMort teams in the funeral directors' region that includes Tennessee have also been deployed to Biloxi, Miss., Anniston, Ala., Baton Rouge, La., and Houston, Tex.
Gowen-Smith Chapel "has collected a massive amount of food and necessary items" for survivors of the hurricane on the Gulf coast, Buckner said. "The people of Bedford County ... have been very receptive."