The Federal Emergency Management Agency has a hired contractor to provide services that a local mortician says have been available from volunteers through the National Funeral Directors Association.
"Volunteers would have gone at no charge," said Dan Buckner, co-owner and manager of Gowen-Smith Chapel. "Now, they'll have this job done by people who will be paid. That kind of irks me."
Buckner was on stand-by to go to Louisiana or Mississippi in the wake of Hurricane Katrina since hundreds of bodies have yet to be recovered, identified and handled with respect as they're moved to their final resting place.
His partner, Gary Hicks of Paducah, Ky., went on Monday to Biloxi, Miss. -- instead of Gulfport as Buckner had believed previously -- to serve with the Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Team (DMort) and Buckner has relayed Hicks' report of a top-end, total estimate from officials saying up to 40,000 deaths were feared because of Katrina.
Buckner stands by that figure as a potential total death toll in two states. However, far fewer than 10,000 bodies have been found in New Orleans, a number issued as a warning by Mayor Ray Nagin. Death toll numbers combined from various news reports didn't exceed 1,000 last week, but one mortuary set up for the catastrophe can deal with more than 5,000.
"The company that FEMA has chosen to outsource the recovery work in Louisiana is Kenyon, a worldwide disaster management company, wholly owned subsidiary of Service Corporation International," according to the NFDA.
SCI, of Houston, Texas, provides funeral, cremation and cemetery services in North America and Reuters reported Kenyon International Emergency Services spokesman Jay Kirsch said it was sending 50 workers to the area struck by Katrina to help recover the bodies of those killed by the hurricane.
Kenyon specializes in providing disaster mortuary services. PRNewswire reported the 75-year-old company deployed a mobile morgue and a large response team following the tsunami that washed ashore at Phuket, Thailand.
"Kenyon asked us to share the names and phone numbers of NFDA members and funeral directors who are interested in a paid three-week employment situation," the NFDA told its members. "If you have already volunteered with NFDA, we'd like to let you know about this paid option to help."
Buckner reacted, "There's no telling how many dollars they'll spend on that contract."
Asked for the dollar amount of the contract, SCI spokesman Gregory Bolton referred questions to Kenyon spokesmen.
Kenyon spokesman Bill Berry said he didn't have a cost figure for work in Louisiana, but added that Kenyon has had a FEMA contract since 1997, was activated after 9-11, is working in Louisiana only so far, and isn't recovering bodies.
"We're receiving," Berry said. "We take them to a DMort ... with refrigerated facilities and then go through the morgue process."
He would "not discuss the personnel matter" of pay, except to say, "We pay a competitive fee. The market place determines that.
"Don't visualize that we're getting behind," Berry said of Kenyon work receiving bodies.
He declined to state a death toll.
NFDA said that during the Labor Day weekend and a couple of days thereafter, the association had "been in constant contact with FEMA, DMort and Louisiana and Mississippi funeral directors associations. NFDA is proud of the good work our state associations are doing during this time of crisis ...
"We share their frustrations regarding the difficulties of working with the agencies involved with orchestrating a massive, cooperative disaster management effort," NFDA said.
FEMA Director Michael Brown was removed from his role managing Hurricane Katrina relief efforts on Friday, the Associated Press reported.
Brown was being sent back to Washington from Baton Rouge, where he was the primary official overseeing the federal government's response to the disaster, according to the AP. Brown was replaced by Coast Guard Vice Adm. Thad W. Allen, who was overseeing New Orleans relief and rescue efforts.
Meanwhile, the NFDA told its members if they replied to its announcement, then their names would be forwarded to Kenyon for paid positions in Louisiana.
"I'm not interested in going under those conditions," Buckner said.