9/25/2005

Chicago Tribune | Reuniting families could take `months'

Those charged with reuniting families and locating missing children in the wake of Hurricane Katrina say it may take "months and months" to resolve the thousands of missing-person reports and more cases are expected as Hurricane Rita roars ashore.

"It gets more difficult every day," said David Mesinar, a retired Las Vegas police detective who is among the 40 or so volunteers--some working up to 14 hours per day--with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

"We are just so overwhelmed," Mesinar, 59, said, taking stock of a frustrating day along the Mississippi coast. "It's so disappointing to not be able to solve so many of these cases."

Nearly four weeks after Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, the number of cases has continued to rise.

As of noon Friday, a special hot line set up at the national center's headquarters in Alexandria, Va., had taken 16,275 calls from people looking for information on missing children or family members. In Louisiana, the state hardest hit by Hurricane Katrina, the center has opened 3,783 cases of missing children or children looking for their parents, an increase of 788 cases since the beginning of the week.

Combined with calls to its permanent hot line, the center has taken more than 25,000 calls. This week, 3,752 calls have come in.

"Parents are just now getting organized enough to get to a phone or some means of communication," said Ben Ermini, executive director of case management operations for the center.

More than a dozen volunteers have been deployed to states affected by Katrina. The week before the hurricane hit, Canon donated 200 digital cameras. Volunteers use them to take pictures and update rolls at shelters across the region.

Those photos also are posted on various Web sites so families can search for loved ones via computers.

Four days after the storm, the Justice Department asked the center to begin a hot line specifically for families separated by the hurricane. Within three days, 35 volunteers in Alexandria began answering the first calls to report missing children.

"They canceled vacations. They ended their long weekends," said Bob Snow, who manages the day shift at the call center. "We have had no shortage of people to help us out."

The center transformed a ground-floor law-enforcement training room into the call center. Rows of tables accommodate 24 volunteers at any one time to answer phones and take reports of missing children and adults.

The call center' special number, 1-888-544-5475, is staffed 16 hours a day from 8 a.m. to midnight. Each station also includes a computer linked to shelter databases. In many cases, callers with relatives in the gulf region haven't heard from family and want to know their status, and the report begins and ends there...

After volunteers take the basic information, the report is sent to one of 15 paid case managers--up from nine on normal days before the storm--who try to locate children and return them to their families...

The agency's Web site is www.missingkids.com.

Chicago Tribune | Reuniting families could take `months'

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