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MO orthodontist reflects on helping ID Hurricane Katrina victims


This Saturday marks 10 years since Hurricane Katrina made landfall as a Category 3 storm.

Katrina hit with 127 mile an hour winds between Grand Isle, Louisiana and the mouth of the Mississippi River, leaving a huge path of death and destruction in her wake.

According to FEMA, Katrina is, “the single most catastrophic natural disaster in U.S. history.”

That devastating storm claimed more than a thousand lives in Louisiana and Mississippi.

As part of the Disaster Mortuary Occupational Response Team, Doctor Shanon Kirchhoff, a Cape Girardeau orthodontist, spent two weeks in New Orleans performing forensic dentistry on the victims of Hurricane Katrina, bringing closure to hundreds of families.

“I recall almost every victim that I ID’d or at least tried to ID,” said Dr. Shanon Kirchhoff.

Kirchhoff volunteered to do a job not many would jump at the chance to do. He said when he got the call to go to New Orleans, he was sent to one of the hardest hit areas: the lower 9th Ward.

“There was mattresses turned over and mud and sludge and the water had petroleum in it and sewage,” he explained.

It was also one of the most dangerous areas.

“We were there for an hour or two and finally the cops that escorted us in started putting on their bullet-proof jackets going, ‘It’s time to go home, we have to go through three red zones.’ We were like, ‘What’s a red zone?’”

He said Red Zones, as they later found out, were the locations where people were at risk of being shot at by locals protecting their stuff, or wanna-be robbers.

His team set up a secret morgue inside a warehouse in St. Gabriel. They would sleep inside the Rec center at the nearby college.

“I didn’t know what to expect, no one knew what to expect. We thought we would be staying in a hotel but there weren’t any,” he said.

Then it was time to work. During 12 hour days, Kirchhoff and the forensic dental team x-rayed the victims’ mouths. The findings would later be matched with their dental records.

Dr. Kirchhoff would help examine hundreds of victims.

“It made me appreciate it more because I saw the consequences of mass death and that just makes you reflect on life and death and what it means to you. It is a different set of circumstances, but it reminds you the importance of family,” he said.

Dr. Kirchhoff said he never expected the trip to be so life changing and bring him closer to his family.

He also volunteered as a forensic dentist following the tornado in Joplin, Missouri where he helped identify all 153 victims.

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About Odont1

Odont1 is a seasoned forensic dentist, researcher and educator with an interest in progressing the science of the discipline while retaining those elements that are evidence based and useful to the judicial system at any level.

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