Forensic expert from the University of the Philippines Manila, Dr. Racquel Fortun, recommended ways to improve retrieval and identification of the dead during disasters in her presentation at the 32nd Anniversary celebration of the Philippine Council for Health Research and Development (PCHRD) on March 14, 2014.
Identifying the bodies has both emotional and legal implications to the living relatives. As Dr. Fortun explained, identification provides closure for the families of the departed. Legal declaration of death helps settle issues on inheritance, remarriage, and criminal cases. However, retrieval and identification of bodies can be a huge challenge in disasters where many died.
Dr. Fortun shared the following ways to improve mass retrieval and identification of bodies during disasters based on her experience working in Tacloban City after Yolanda hit Leyte:
- When planning for a disaster, Dr. Fortun advised that authorities should also plan how to collect, accommodate, examine, and dispose massive number of dead bodies. She recounted that in Leyte, victims’ bodies were randomly picked as they were found. Equipment needed to preserve the bodies, such as refrigerated storage trucks, were lacking.
- Dr. Fortun discussed the right agency must be identified for coordinating the casualties. She said that death investigation is a health issue and therefore must be primarily coordinated by the Department of Health (DOH). Instead, during the typhoon Yolanda, the Bureau of Fire Protection (BFP) was tasked to handle the dead.
- The country must be self-sufficient in handling its own disasters. Because national authorities cannot rely on the health professionals living in disaster areas to provide support as they themselves are most likely affected, Dr. Fortun said that the needed manpower must be mobilized from the rest of the country.
- Create a system for death investigation, especially for disasters that involve a large number of casualties. Dr. Fortun explained that the lack of system for death investigation system cripples the use DNA testing to accurately identify the victims during disasters. In Leyte, because of the huge number of deaths, Dr. Fortun and other volunteer experts, decided to bury the bodies in accessible ground so definitive identification can be made in the future.
Dr Fortun said establishing the victims’ identities is important, not for the dead, but for the living. Helping improve the methods used for establishing the victims’ identities opens the channel for the survivor to move on from the disasters.