The state of Kentucky is still reeling from the devastation caused by the flooding that occurred last week. While more than 1,400 Kentucky residents have been rescued from the wreckage, more than 100 people are still missing and unaccounted for. Scores of missing people are just one of the tragic effects of natural disasters throughout history—families displaced and separated by destruction and want of resources. Searching for missing persons in natural disasters is always an uphill battle, but with autonomy and due-diligence, there is hope.
Missing person searches are inherently complicated by their very nature, but the exacerbating circumstances of natural disasters can make them even more complicated. Natural disasters like floods, tornadoes, and earthquakes can destroy the established lines of communication that missing person searches are dependent upon. Families are unable to contact their loved ones due to things like downed power lines, lack of Wi-fi, displacement, or grievous injury. Police also become inundated with these reports and have to perform triage in the order of operations to determine which cases are the most urgent. Unfortunately, due to the large volume of people in need, families are often alone in searching for missing persons in natural disasters.
One of the most daunting tasks during the recovery stages of a natural disaster is the cataloging of remains pulled from the wreckage. This means the remains of missing persons in natural disasters can go unclaimed for months or even years. However macabre, these catalogs make it much simpler for families to submit samples of their loved one’s DNA in order to identify any relatives whose remains were recovered. This allows officials to give names to the remains and give families the closure they so desperately need. Relief organizations from FEMA to the Red Cross have online resources with steps private citizens can take to find information about missing persons after a natural disaster. While the reality of submitting one’s DNA for identification purposes might impose an emotional toll that’s too great for some, it is one of the most effective ways to get definitive answers. Families can find closure in knowing the fate of their lost relative or friend.
According to relief organizations throughout the United States, the name of the game now is reunification—doing whatever is possible to reconnect those displaced by tragedy to their remaining loved ones. For example, one of the many reunification resources offered by FEMA is a collaborative effort with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, supporting all measures to return minors under the age of 21 to their parents or guardians. The American Red Cross has a similar database project called Safe and Well, which is an online database designed to help reunited families. Regardless of the scale of the disaster, Safe and Well is administered 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, and works closely with the local Red Cross Chapter of the area in question. While many will experience the miracle of reunification, the terrible reality is that so many more will be left with unanswered questions.
The coronavirus has reportedly killed more than 1000 Chinese residents since the outbreak of a new coronavirus, restricting travel and forcing the quarantines. The Chinese government is under immense pressure to solve the crisis, and scientists are racing to find a way to contain the unnamed virus before it has global repercussions. In another disturbing, yet not altogether surprising, turn of events, persons who have been critical of the government’s handling of the virus outbreak are starting to disappear.
Many Chinese residents have taken to social media to
document how the virus is effecting their communities and how those communities
are effected by the government. Chen Qiushi is one of those citizens, a lawyer
who has been at the epicenter of the outbreak in Wuhan. He started posting
about the virus on January 25 after the Chinese government locked the city down
in order to contain the virus. Chen Qiushi’s remarks regarding the government
and its handling of the outbreak have been—in a word—critical, citing lack of
medical supplies, crowded hospitals, and accusing the Chinese government of
incompetence and suppressing freedom of speech in discourse regarding the
Chen Qiushi’s latest update was last Thursday, February 6,
and no one has heard from him since. In a recent tweet, Chen’s friend Xu
Xiaodong, stated that Chen has been “taken away to quarantine by force.” He
went on to say that Chen has not had access to his personal cell phone. This is
interesting, because Chen’s Twitter account still appears to be active despite
his disappearance. In a statement
released by the Human Rights Watch, they stated that friends and family have
applied for an audience to speak with Chen, but their queries have not been
Another Chinese “citizen journalist” has also gone missing,
just days after the disappearance of Chen Qiushi. Fang Bin, a Wuhan-based
businessman, has also been documenting the devastation in his community via social
media. He had reportedly dared the Chinese government to come seize him for his
comments regarding their handling of the virus on the same day that he posted a
12-second video of a paper that read “resist all citizens, hand the power of
the government back to the people.” Authorities used the fire brigade to break
down his door and arrest him.
In China, government focus appears to be split between
containing the spread of the virus, and controlling the narrative surrounding
the containment. Yaqui Wang, a Cinhese researcher for Human Rights Watch,
commented on the government’s repeated pattern of censoring or controlling
narratives that concern disasters or pandemics, “authorities are as equally, if
not more, concerned with silencing criticism as with containing the spread of
American watchdog organizations and lawmakers have called for the Chinese government to account for Chen Qiushi’s and Fang Bin’s whereabouts. Steven Butler, the program coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists stated, “Authorities in Wuhan must disclose whether they are holding journalist Chen Qiushi. If they are, then he should be released immediately. China does not seem to have learned the clear lesson that bottling up the truth about a spreading illness will only make matters worse.”
(With over 500,000 homeless in the United States, homeless cities are popping up at record numbers Photo courtesy Mercury News, San Jose, Calif.)
The numbers are staggering. According to the Housing and Urban Development (HUD), there were approximately 554,000 homeless people living somewhere in the United States on any given night last year. Sadly, that number is rising.
According to Forbes, cities with the highest rate of homelessness are in one of the five states – California (129,972), New York (91,897), Florida (31,030), Texas (25,310), and Washington (22,304). Not surprising is the problem has become much more visible in urban areas and over half of all homeless people live in one of the country’s 50 largest cities.
Homelessness is an issue that permeates many societies throughout the world but seems to be a unique struggle in the United States. One might be surprised to know, the Big Apple has one of the lowest levels of unsheltered homeless at 5% while Los Angeles, 75% of people were found in unsheltered locations.
People who are homeless are often not able to secure and maintain regular, safe, and secure housing. Many become transient, never staying in one place for any length of time . . . wandering the streets, from city to city.
Who are the Homeless?
People often become homeless when the economic issues collide with their housing issues, to include other factors such as domestic violence, physical disability, mental illness, addiction, transitioning into adulthood and strains on relationships.
(Many homeless people start out with jobs and homes; then social and economic factors intervene.)
Something that we see more and more often these days is homelessness caused by untreated Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), along with untreated depression and other serious mental illness.
According the Mental Illness Policy Org., in January 2015, the most extensive survey ever undertaken by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) revealed 250,000 homeless individuals suffered from varying mental illness. That is 45% of the total homeless population.
At any given time, there are many more people with untreated severe psychiatric illnesses living on the streets than are receiving care in hospitals. Approximately 90,000 individuals with schizophrenia or manic-depressive illness are in hospitals receiving treatment for their disease.
No vision haunts America’s conscience more than the sight of the street people . . . the irrationality and anguish that grip so many of these individuals leap out during any encounter, whether in Washington or Albuquerque.” ~ Senator Pete Domenici (R-NM)
To further complicate any understanding of the numbers, homeless shelters and service providers ride a very delicate line.
Due to privacy-related HIPPA regulations, tracking a person that is navigating the hodgepodge of homeless services can be nearly impossible.
Providers do not report entry logs with missing person systems because of HIPPA. Also, there is no training to use the counts to collect information and data that can help identify known missing persons.
As the law stands, adult persons can come and go as they please. Unlike with missing children, there is no statute requiring law enforcement to even take a report, though in some state’s legislation has been passed to change that and improvements being made.
Organizations like Missing and Homeless are urging communities to work collaboratively with the homeless with direct outreach efforts beyond that system that is in place. Small providers, nonprofits and homeless individuals themselves are more successful in assisting with the search efforts of other missing people.
What Happens When a Loved One is Homeless and Goes Missing?
(Bridget Pendell vanished April 2003 and despite hundreds of leads she has never been seen again. Photo courtesy of SF Gate/Flier courtesy Kym Pasqualini – National Center for Missing Adults.)
There is nothing more intense and emotional than not knowing where someone you love is. The ambiguity alone can cause extreme emotional turmoil. Families are left frantically searching, hanging fliers, begging for media exposure, and talking to anyone who will listen in an attempt to find their missing loved one.
Bridget Pendell may look like a wasted-thin drug addict and could be wandering the streets of San Francisco or turning tricks in Portland or Phoenix. Or she could be dead, just another unidentified missing person buried in the city’s Potter’s Field.
Her sister Jackie Horne wants to know what happened to her sister. She has spent the last 15 years searching for Pendell, traveling from New York to San Francisco to scour the city for her missing sister.
(Jackie Horne leaves missing person posters on mailboxes in the Haight district of San Francisco. Photo courtesy of SF Gate/Flier courtesy Kym Pasqualini – National Center for Missing Adults.)
Pendell would be 46 now and shows just how easily homeless can disappear. Horne travels the hard-core sections of the city where women sell their bodies for sex and drugs, leaving missing person posters on mailboxes, giving out her missing person posters and scanning the worn-out faces. Horne quietly asks for help from anyone who will listen.
(Bridget Pendell was a former Barbizon model with her life in front of her.)
Pendell was a beautiful young girl who grew up in Plattsburg, New York and graduated high school before becoming a former Barbizon model student. She eventually became a nurse and met the “man of her dreams” married and had a baby girl they named Sasha. Pendell had met some friends who followed the Grateful Dead, and she joined them and began following the band throughout the country.
(Followers of the Grateful Dead followed the band to different locations throughout the country.)
Pendell’s new lifestyle broke the marriage apart as her husband would have no part in the lifestyle, she was dabbling in. Following their divorce, Pendell began wandering between New York, Kansas, and Florida, sometimes with Sasha. There she began using heroin and cocaine and by 1996, she had succumbed to drugs and prostitution.
Pendell’s mother took Sasha while Pendell continued to live in California.
Her last chance . . . the family decided the only way to save Pendell was to have her enter a two-month drug rehabilitation program. If she refused, no one was certain what would happen to her.
She accepted the help and entered into Seton Health System rehab center. A doctor’s report explaining Pendell’s condition read: “Above average intelligence.” She was released from rehab two days early and immediately left to San Francisco.
From the answers Horne receives while out searching, it seems Pendell is known everywhere, yet a phantom in a dark world few can imagine.
“I saw her a couple of days ago, I swear,” a prostitute named Crystal said as she brushed on mascara, getting ready to hit the chaos of Mission Street. “She works this street. Shoots up heavy.” Another man said he believed Pendell went by the nickname Butterfly.
Now joining in the search is Pendell’s daughter Sasha who despite her mother vanishing, has maintained Straight A’s at school. Growing up without her mother she did know her mother was on drugs. “Maybe she feels bad . . . maybe she doesn’t want to come back into my life while she’s on drugs . . . but if I could see her, I would tell her I wasn’t mad.”
Leads have been received from across the country, but most have led back to San Francisco and Santa Cruz. Another possibility is that known rapist, Jack Bokin killed Pendell. Horne reached out to him and he never denied killing her. It is unknown what happened to Pendell and if she is still alive out there somewhere.
(Horrified seeing the numbers of other missing, San Francisco authorities explained to Horne that ever year, hundreds of homeless die in the city, most identified.)
Nobody knows exactly how may chronically homeless are missing. Losing touch with family and friends they are joining a steady stream of panhandlers and those sleeping on the sidewalk.
Going under the radar, with no identification, no address, no welfare checks they are impossible to follow.
According to the California Department of Justice, more than 17,000 women like Pendell are reported missing in California every year, but no records are kept about how many are homeless. Nearly 300 are found deceased, and although most are found safe, approximately 100 remain missing – whereabouts unknown.
Morgues throughout California maintain remains of over 2,000 people, dating back 45 years, who have never been identified.
“We have about two bodies per year we can’t identify, and we cremate another 160 because we make an identification but can’t find relatives to claim them.,” said Herb Hawley, administrator at the San Francisco medical examiner’s office. It is a similar story throughout the country.
It’s just like she vanished off the face of the earth,” said Horne as she walks up and down a line of homeless men and women waiting for lunch at a local church. “These guys in line, all those homeless people around downtown – they have relatives, too, and hopefully some of those relatives know where they are. But Bridget? Nothing.”
Most Americans have never and will never experience the devastation that occurs in the aftermath of war on their homeland. It is hard to quantify the scale of missing persons in conflict, but available statistics reflect a vast number have gone missing due to conflict, migration and disaster.
Kosovo refugees in the aftermath of war. Photo courtesy of Euromaidan Press.
Over 20 years have passed since the armed conflict in Kosovo but as many as 1,647 families still await answers about the whereabouts of their loved ones in connection with the 1998-1999 events and the aftermath.
Families of the missing are left with ambiguity, not knowing what has really happened to their loved ones, unable to give them a dignified funeral, and unable to go on with the lives.
To help family members find information about the fate of their missing loved ones, Belgrade and Pristina adopted the Procedures on the Handover of Human Remains in 2018. The session was chaired by the ICRC along with families of the missing and international community.
Treated as a humanitarian effort, ICRC is concerned about the snail pace rate of progress. According the Chairman of the group, Fabien Bourdier of ICRC, “Only seven cases were resolved in 2018.”
Hasiba Zlatarac has been searching for her son, husband and brother since 1992 in Sarajevo. Photo courtesy of BIRN.
According to Balkan Transitional Justice, Hasiba Zlatarac , who lives in the Sarajevo suburb of Vogosca, is still searching for the remains of her son Nedzad, 22, when he disappeared during the war, along with her husband Huso, 53, and her brother Fikret who was 42.
All three men were taken by Bosnian Serb forces and held at the Planjina Kuca detention facility in Vogosca during the spring of 1992.
“In June 1992, they were taken from Planjina Kuca . . . I don’t know where to” said Zlatarac. Nobody knows . . . up to this day, I’ve not heard a rumor, a trace . . . nothing.”
Zlatarac accused Bosnian authorities and politicians of “forgetting” the families of missing persons.
“I am bitter. I am angry at the government and all of them . . . It’s been 22 years since the end of the war, and they can’t even tell us where the bodies are, so we can find our loved ones and lay them to rest. Then I could also rest,” Zlatarac explained.
According to the country’s Missing Persons Institute, more than 30,000 people were considered missing in Bosnia and Herzegovina after the end of the conflict, and the remains of more than 7,000 of them remain missing.
Halil Ujkani in searching for his three sons, Shaip, Nahit, and Nazmi since 1999. Photo courtesy of BIRN/Serbeze Haxhiaj.
Halil Ujkani prays he will live to learn the fate of his three sons. The eldest, 29, and the youngest only 19.
On the evening of April 16, 1999, Ujkani’s three sons, Shaip, Nahit and Nazmi, left the house to travel to Montenegro to try to survive the war in Kosovo.
For three days, they stayed in villages near the Kosovo-Serbia border before they were stopped by Serbian armed forces.
“The Serbian military caught them the evening of April 19 in the village of Dreth which was Serb occupied. Ujkani told the Balkan Investigative Network (BIRN), “An old Serb woman who was taking care of her cows said that she witnessed the moment when they were stopped by the military. There was no shooting of killings that day,” Ujkani added.
Three days later, two of the 24 people who were stopped by Serbian forces, along with his sons, came back to Mitrovica after getting lost in mountain roads. They had lost contact with the rest of the group, never making it to Montenegro territory.
“On April 22, my Serb neighbors in north Mitrovica saw my son and some other while Serbian military took them in a military truck,” said Ujkani. “My neighbor Bogoljub Aleksic heard that they were taking them to Pozarevac [in Serbia].”
Ujkani, 84, is a former mine worker, said he has spent 19 years searching for his sons in what has become the most painful chapter of his life.
In addition to his three sons, two of his nephews are among the group who went missing.
“I have searched for them both among the living and the dead, said Ujkani. “Everyday I imagine that I’m finding them.”
The number of those disappeared during the communism in Albania is impossible to know, some experts believe the number to be close to 5,000 people killed that still await proper burial.
The families know the clock is ticking while living with the torture of doubt about the fate of those who vanished and were never heard from again.
Bodies Mistakenly Identified
Unknown graves at a southern Kosovo cemetery. Photo courtesy of Human Rights Watch/Fred Abrahams.
On March 26, 1999, two days after North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) launched air strikes against Yugoslavia, Serbian forces killed Halim Hajdari. His son Flurim Hajdari recollects that day when they killed his father and five brothers, the youngest only 12 years old, along with 108 other Albanian citizens.
About half of the victims were found in a nearby river, the other are still missing.
In July 1999, Hague experts invited Flurim Hajdari to a makeshift morgue in the Kosovo town of Rahovec/Orahovac where he hoped to find the bodies of his father and brothers.
Flurim Hajdari awaiting word of the fate of his missing father and five brothers. Photo courtesy of BIRN.
Personal belongings and clothing found in the graves was put on display in the same building as the improvised morgue, so family members of the missing may be able to identify the items.
By 2003, when the ICMP signed an agreement to use DNA to identify bodies, thousands of victims had already been identified by sight.
“This traditional method of identification carried significant risk of error,” the ICMP told BIRN media. The ICMP is lobbying to reverse the identifications made without using DNA.
Like efforts here in the United States, ICMP proposes collecting genetic reference samples from family members whose loved ones were already identified without the use of DNA.
In 2015, Flurim Hajdari was notified by neighbors that the graves at the Pristina mortuary were being dug up again.
A forensic team was able to identify the remains of two of his brothers, Salajdin and Rasim.
“When I showed them identification documents issued by the United Nations Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK), they took them from my hands and gave me some with the European Union Rule of Law Mission (EULEX) stamp, without further explanations,” said Flurim Hajdari.
EULEX stated that it “held a number of meetings with those affected to explain why the exhumations were needed.”
Since then, the ICMP has issued 2,466 DNA identification reports. The exhumations were a direct result of EULEX’s efforts through forensics work and the advancement of DNA aimed at rectifying the mistakes made in the past. However, the remains of 400 people at the Pristina morgue do not match with any DNA reference samples of families of missing people.
Kushtrim Gara of the government’s missing person commission expressed concern about mistaken identifications.
“This has happened in the aftermath of the war when those responsible for these issues were international institutions and identifications were made with the traditional method,” Gara said.
Victims have been exhumed and reburied at least twice by Serb forces before hidden mass graves were discovered causing some body parts to become mixed up. At times only parts of remains were found.
“There was also mixing of the remains during the handing over of human remains,” Gara sharing her concern that there was also a problem after DNA matching started to be used.
Another problem is convincing the victims’ families to cooperate with a slow and painful process.
EULEX emphasized that the key factors for proper identifications are “the provision of accurate information as well as of complete blood references in order to carry out essential DNA testing.”
Arsim Gerxaliu, the head of the Kosovo Institute of Forensics said that the identification process must now involve talking to every family to get blood samples for DNA matching.
“Based on tests so far, around 20 percent of the cases are incorrect burials,” said Gerxaliu.
Depoliticizing the Search for Missing Persons
On the National Day of the Disappeared, the families of missing persons gather to memorialize the graves of their loved ones. Photo courtesy of ICRC/Jetmir Duraku.
On July 18, after eight years of negotiations, Albania signed an agreement to find remains of missing persons with the help of the International Committee on Missing Persons.
In September, parliament is expected to ratify the agreement to open the way to begin exhumations.
International Day of the Disappeared, on August 30, marks the day that the International Commission on Missing Persons will be launching a website to exchange information with the public about missing persons.
“We take this opportunity to once again pay tribute to the families who struggle with despair of not knowing what happened to their loved ones,” said Agim Gashi, head of the ICRC in Kosovo. “On their behalf, we urge authorities to increase their efforts in solving this humanitarian problem that continues to affect Kosovo even two decades down the line.”
Under international humanitarian law, the former parties to the conflict are responsible to provide answers about the whereabouts of people who have vanished on territories under their control.
Meanwhile, families await justice and information two decades after conflict.
Many individuals who lived through natural disaster in the year 2018 lost loved ones to violent forces of nature. National news has been inundated, not only with updated death totals, but also long lists of names belonging to individuals who went missing during the disaster. The initial report in a missing persons case is a springboard for many complicated processes and procedures conducted by law enforcement and private investigators. Every relevant piece of information about the missing person must be collected, their last known whereabouts searched. If law enforcement determines the person is in immediate danger, or if they’re a minor, search teams are dispatched to the surrounding areas. The family makes themselves sick with worry. Spreading like a crack in a dam, the web of processes that stem from the first report can cause a cacophony of confusion. Now imagine that multiplied by five, or ten times. Or 1,276 times.
At its peak, that was the highest estimated number of missing persons during the coverage of California’s Camp Fire. Often, stories about mass groups of people vanishing are couched in mystery, intrigue, or even the paranormal, like the disappearance of the infamous Roanoke Colony that vanished off the coast of present-day North Carolina. Or Flight 370 of Malaysia Airlines, which was carrying 239 passengers and crew to Beijing when it mysteriously went missing over the South China Sea in 2014. In 2018, however, instances of long lists of missing persons following a single event have been instigated by tragedy—not intrigue.
State officials addressing this number have assured the public this number is an overestimation. One of the most complicated aspects of searching for missing persons during and after a natural disaster is the major breakdown in communication. During a natural disaster, individuals will often report loved ones missing when they are unable to contact, which could be for a myriad of reasons (downed power lines, lack of Wi-Fi, displacement, injury, etc.) After a few days, the loved one is able to establish a lifeline and is able to reach out to their family and friends. State officials claim the reporting individuals often do not call to follow up with emergency operations teams to let them know their loved one has been located.
Like in cases of individuals going missing, survivors of Hurricane Michael have had to turn to crowdsourcing in order to track down missing loved ones, an effort crippled by a devastated infrastructure and incapacitated communication systems. Police departments have become inundated with missing persons reports and individuals are turning to multiple entities in order to get answers to the whereabouts of their loved ones—individuals like Tracey Stinson of Fort Walton Beach. Her father lived in Youngstown at the time of the hurricane, and had not heard from him in many days. “I actually tried calling a store he shops at that’s near his home that was gone. So I was unable to reach them so then the next step was contact the sheriff’s office. I just kept calling every several hours to see if I could catch them with a phone line that was operating and there was no luck.”
Desperate parents and loved ones also combed Facebook for news or tips, and implored others for any information they might have about missing loved ones. Despite a classification of a Category 4 storm, there were many in the panhandle who doubled down inside their homesteads, rather than evacuate.
One of these people was Nicholas Sines, who lived in Panama City. His mother, Kristine Wright, begged him to go to a shelter before the storm ripped through the city. But Nicholas was steadfast, “I’m staying here.” Kristine went six days without hearing from her son before she took to Facebook, imploring other users to share any information they might have. “I’m not sleeping, I’m not eating,” she told The New York Times. “As his mother, my heart hurts.” It goes beyond earnest timeline posts and comments, however.
In 2014, following the terrorist attacks on Paris that claimed 129 lives, Facebook launched what’s known as its Safety Check Feature. The Safety Check Feature is turned on by Facebook administrators in the wake of any type of displacement disaster, whether it be natural or at the hands of man. The system sends out a notification to users in the effected area, prompting users to mark themselves as “safe,” if they are able. This action places an item in the user’s feed that will alert others on their friends list that they are okay.
Social media is not the only recourse for those desperate to get in touch with a missing loved one in the wake of a natural disaster. Platforms like CrowdSource Rescue have been connecting concerned individuals with their loved ones living in areas effected by natural disasters. It allows citizens to file a report for a missing person, which places their data on a map that directs rescue teams to the most affected areas. Company co-founder, Matthew Marchetti, told NPR, “We’re like a ride share company for disasters.”
Unfortunately, hurricanes were not the only natural disaster erasing entire communities in 2018. In a gross irony, the town of Paradise, California was reduced to a pile of smoldering rubble after it was consumed by a behemoth wildfire. The pictures of the devastation are truly haunting, evoking scenes from post-apocalyptic Hollywood films. Before the blaze erupted, Paradise was a town of around 27,000 people. It’s beautiful sights and small-community atmosphere made it a popular place for retirees to begin the third act of their lives. As such, a majority of the remains pulled from the debris and wreckage were found to be retirement age or older.
The California Camp Fire will go down in the history books as the deadliest and most devastating wildfire the nation has ever seen. Officials have only recently announced the fire has been 100% contained with fire-lines. It burned 150,000 acres (ten times the size of Manhattan), claimed the lives of 85 Californians, and left thousands displaced and homeless in tent cities. In the chaos, 200 people are still unaccounted for. In the past few weeks some reports listed the number of missing as high as 1,276 on November 17th, but just like the circumstances during Hurricane Michael, that number dropped dramatically once displaced Californians were able to find a line of communication to their families.
Investigators have been working for months attempting to identify the source of the California Campfire, but no single cause has yet to be determined. Meanwhile, rescue officials are still sifting through the rubble. Kory Honea of the Butte County Sheriff’s Department told the Huffington Post that they could not say with certainty how long the search will take, “My sincere hope is the majority of people on that list…will be accounted for.”
The dramatic drop in the number of missing is not unlike that of the Sonoma County Tubbs Fire in 2017. The number of missing during the Tubbs Fire was almost double that of the Camp Fire, but dropped to just 22 as individuals were located or found deceased. However, during the Tubbs Fire, search and rescue officials opted not to publish the names of those feared missing under caution during a disaster that was constantly in flux. Kory Honea had a different mindset: Publishing the list meant drawing out information from the public that could help officials whittle the list of missing from a sequoia down to a splinter. When questioned about whether or not possible inaccuracies on the list might cause issues, Honea said, “I can’t let perfection get in the way of progress. It is important for us to get the information out so we can get started identifying these individuals.”
Identification of the remains found is a grueling process, not only for officials involved in Camp Fire, but any natural disaster in the United States. Officials in paradise have collected DNA samples from those who tragically perished in the inferno, but are left with little recourse to identify them without help from the public. Jim Davis, the Chief Federal Officer of ANDE told ABC, “The only way we can identify those people is to have family members submit reference samples so we can match the two.” At the Family Assistance Center in Paradise, ANDE collected 68 family donor samples, but it’s nowhere near enough. Hundreds of family samples will be needed in order to confirm victims’ identities. Davis attributes the community’s hesitance towards this identification measure to the bleak confirmation of their loved one’s tragic demise, “As we’ve collected samples from people, you know we see this emotion that comes with accepting the possibility that their loved ones are gone.”
Since the development of DNA forensic technology, mass collection and catalog of DNA samples has been the subject of privacy debate. While everyone has a right to privacy, there are monumental benefits to a large database of DNA samples that go beyond victim identification. As such, legal professionals at Fordham University issued a report proposing principles that find the middle in the DNA privacy debate. The abstract reads:
Rescue officials have the monumental task of containing a natural disaster, searching the effected area for victims of its fatal destruction, and finally giving names to the remains—a process that can take weeks or even months. Meanwhile, Americans across the nation wait with bated breath for information about their loved ones living in or around Paradise, California. Relief organizations from FEMA to the Red Cross have online resources with steps private citizens can take to find information about missing persons after a natural disaster. While the reality of submitting one’s DNA for identification purposes might impose an emotional toll that’s too great for some, it is one of the most effective way to get definitive answers. Families can find closure in knowing the fate of their lost relative or friend.
The Red Cross offers many tips and strategies for locating and reaching out to loved ones that go beyond the straightforward. In addition to calling other family members and utilizing social media tools, individuals are also encouraged to call or visit places their loved one was known to frequent, like Tracey Stinson did when she asked around at her missing father’s usual grocery store. Resources also recommend calling during off-peak hours to increase their chances of getting through to an operator or official.
Following Camp Fire, many families and single individuals spent their Thanksgiving in warehouses, shelters, and tent cities in grocery store parking lots, with everything they own in a few small suitcases. For many, there is no home to return to when the natural destruction is finally snuffed out. According to relief organizations throughout the United States, the name of the game now is reunification—doing whatever is possible to reconnect those displaced by tragedy to their remaining loved ones. For example, one of the many reunification resources offered by FEMA is a collaborative effort with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, supporting all measures to return minors under the age of 21 to their parents or guardians. The American Red Cross has a similar database project called Safe and Well, which is an online database designed to help reunited families. Regardless of the scale of the disaster, Safe and Well is administered 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, and works closely with the local Red Cross Chapter of the area in question. While many will experience the miracle of reunification, the terrible reality is that so many more will be left with unanswered questions.
Carie McMichael is the Communication and Media Specialist for Lauth Investigations International. She regularly writes on investigation and missing persons topics. For more information, please visit our website.