Drinking with DMORT
We finally caught up with two guys from Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Teams in an airport bar in Baton Rouge. We talked about Katrina, recovery tactics, and disaster politics, but I'm not going to repeat what they told me. These guys are heroes and the last thing I want to do is get them in trouble.
One of the most remarkable things about DMORT is that it's an all-volunteer agency. The 1200 DMORT team members come from a variety of backgrounds including law enforcement, EMS, medicine, physical anthropology, and funerary services. DMORT members are on call year-round to respond to mass fatality incidents at a moment's notice.
"Mike" from the airport bar is a retired firefigher who was headed back to the Midwest after spending several days searching people who drowned in their New Orleans homes. Mike is already veteran DMORT volunteer. His first deployment was to the WTC after 9/11.
Mike didn't set out to join DMORT, he just had a general plan to volunteer for a federal agency after he retired. DMORT was the group that got back to him.
He talked about his DMORT training. All potential volunteers have to go through extensive training, as do their non-deploying spouses. Husbands and wives are taught how to support their partners when they come home from their deployments. They're told to expect nightmares and emotional outbursts. Veterans try to explain to the newbie couples about the ambivalence of spent, traumatized volunteers who still yearn to be back in the disaster zone with their buddies.
For Mike, DMORT was a big adjustment after decades firefighting. Before, it was an all-out struggle to save lives and protect property, now it's a methodical accounting of those who couldn't be saved. But Mike finds the work very rewarding. DMORT is like a family, Mike explained. The guy you're working with could be an internationally recognized forensic expert, or a local firefighter, but everyone is equal and everyone is committed to each other and to the mission.
DMORT has a special relationship with the deceased. No matter how many casualties there are, and no matter what their condition, every body is the remains of an individual human who needs care -- not just removal and identification.
"We talk to them," he said quietly. "We say, 'We're here, Grandma, we're going to take good care of you.'"