GULFPORT, Miss. - As body counts mounted and missing-person reports multiplied in the days after Hurricane Katrina, some morgue workers began using a new technology to keep track of unidentified remains.
Radio frequency identification chips - slender red cylinders about half an inch long - were implanted under the corpses' skin or placed inside body bags.
Each VeriChip, donated by a subsidiary of Applied Digital Solutions Inc., emits a specific radio signal, enabling morgue workers to quickly locate and catalog the remains and reduce errors.
With dozens of bodies in two Mississippi counties - Harrison and Hancock - still unidentified, Harrison County Coroner Gary T. Hargrove said the chips have been a boon to the Disaster Mortuary Operational Recovery Team he oversees.
"It's better enabled me to do my job as the coroner - tracking and getting people's loved ones back to them quickly," he said.
Beside tagging the storm victims, which are kept in refrigerated trucks at Gulfport-Biloxi Regional Airport, the chips are helping Hargrove catalog other human remains that the flood waters released from damaged caskets and burial vaults in cemeteries.
In all, 133 bodies have been recovered in Harrison and Hancock counties, accounting for more than half of the 220 people killed by Katrina in Mississippi. At least 1,079 deaths have been attributed to Katrina in five states.
RFID chips are increasingly being used to monitor the movement of goods and equipment, by the likes of Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and the U.S. military.
Approved by the Food and Drug Administration for human implantation in 2004, the VeriChip implants have been used for tagging pets and identifying high-security workers, but not for managing morgue cases before, Applied Digital spokesman John O. Procter said.
Each chip comes packaged in a white plastic injector that looks like a bulky pen attached to a thick hypodermic needle.
Hargrove said the chips are implanted in the corpse's shoulder or placed inside the body bag, depending on the condition of the remains.
Plastic scanners that resemble TV remote controls are used to read the chips. They have screens that display a 16-digit number when passed within six inches of a chip. The same number is preprinted on bar-code stickers attached to each injector package.
Hargrove said the stickers go on the outside of the bag, on the case file and on any DNA samples taken from the remains.
Conventional morgue case management involves ankle bracelets, which must be checked to ensure that the remains match their file numbers.
"The VeriChip allows the technicians to accurately and quickly identify the remains inside the body bag without having to open the body bag at each step along the process," Procter said.
Some privacy advocates fear that implantable RFID chips could lead to unwanted tracking of humans.
But Chuck Kerr, a Murfreesboro, Tenn., businessman whose parents' bodies were at the DMORT site in Gulfport for nearly two weeks after the Aug. 29 storm, doesn't object to the technology's use in disaster recovery.
"If it helps the families find their loved ones, then I think it's a good thing," he said.
He said his parents, Charlie, 79, and Betty, 75, had moved from St. Louis to Pass Christian in 1994 to enjoy the warm Gulf Coast weather.
As Katrina neared, they chose to stay in their house less than a mile from the beach because they didn't think Betty's recently replaced hip joint could tolerate hurricane-shelter conditions.