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York County official leads morgue unit to Haiti

York County Emergency Management Director Cotton Howell stands in front of a world map in his office.

In the days after the earthquake in Haiti, teams rushed in from around the world to help rescue victims and aid survivors. One York County official rushed in with a mission that was more grim. WFAE's Julie Rose has his story. The images of victims killed by the quake and lying in the streets waiting to be identified were horrifying and heart-wrenching. They were the reason York County Emergency Management Director Cotton Howell went to Haiti. But he doesn't like talking about the bodies: "To sit and go into the morbid details of that in my opinion and our team's opinion would be disrespectful to them and their survivors. But would DMORT does is we scientifically try to determine the cause and manner of death, and their identification, and that's what we do in any situation, whether it is a domestic airline crash, whether it was Katrina, whether it was the World Trade Center. The people that we have in our organization are the real CSI. These are the best and brightest nationwide of the forensic sciences." They are members of the national Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Team - or DMORT - which was formed in the early 90's. Howell commands a 206-member unit from the Southeast region. Two days after the earthquake, he was in Haiti working with the U.S. State Department. By unofficial estimates there were 100 Americans missing. Howell and his team came to recover and identify the bodies of those who didn't survive. They set up a portable morgue: "And it's totally self-contained. They have it set it up in a tent. If someone were delivered to the morgue, the body would be X-rayed, it would be photographed, any personal effects would be identified - earrings, the clothing, everything that accompanies that body would be identified, cataloged, be full-body X-ray. Then it would go on to some of the scientific stations. It would be fingerprinted, if possible. We have the capability to embalm and casket but we have only done that twice in DMORT's career - and those were once in Guam and once in a recent plane crash because local capabilities - local funeral homes - did not have the capability to do that, and then they were returned to the families for burial." It would be one thing I imagine to be a rescue team. You come in and you're dealing with lives that have already lost. Is it difficult sometimes ... overwhelming, to know that your job is the death and not the life? Well, you have to have an attitude toward death. You have to understand the grieving process. In our situation, early on, people, if their loved one has not been recovered, then they still have hope they'll survive. You have to deal with them totally differently from people who know their loved one has perished. That's why we have so many funeral directors on the team. They know how to interact with people who are grieving, because they do it on a daily basis. What is it that motivates you to do this? I do rescue every day. In being the county Emergency Management Director, I'm involved in everything that goes on in the county on a day-by-day basis. There's many emergency management directors throughout the country that have worked their entire career and never managed a major event. I've been able to manage several, and be able to bring all of the things I've learned from those back to York County and apply them to my day-to-day job, so there's huge benefits from this, both personally and professionally. Howell says the biggest challenge of his Haiti deployment was finding a way to get the supplies and staff for DMORT into the country. There were diplomatic issues, too, since he says it's the first time the DMORT has responded to a disaster in a foreign country. (Even with the Asian tsunami, DMORT worked out of the U.S. territory of Guam.) But Howell says the most challenging disaster his team has responded to was on U.S. soil: After Hurricane Katrina there were as many as 15,000 people missing. DMORT's job was to identify the dead among them and see them respectfully put to rest.