Last November, as wildfires ravaged the town of Paradise, California, Robert Vigil received an urgent call from the Department of Health and Human services (HHS). Local officials were racing to identify the remains of fire victims, and Vigil, who has spent 26 years as a funeral director in Yuma County, Arizona, was needed on the scene.
From the news, Vigil already knew the fires had killed dozens of people and that hundreds more were missing. Under orders from HHS, he hopped on a plane to Butte County, California, where he advised local coroners about how to deal with the influx of fatalities.
Vigil believes he might be the first federally-employed mortician sent to the site of a wildfire. But it’s not the first time the government has deployed him to work in a natural disaster zone. Vigil is one of 186 funeral directors who, when a disaster strikes, becomes an intermittent employee of a little-known division of HHS: the Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Team, or DMORT. Together with hundreds of other specialists whose day jobs range from medical examiner to pathologist, forensic anthropologist, fingerprint specialist, and even dental assistant, DMORT employees have worked behind-the-scenes for the federal government to deal with the dead following some of the worst disasters in recent U.S. history.
While Vigil did not fly to Paradise, California in his official capacity as a DMORT team commander—he was just there as a funeral director on the federal payroll—he’s been deployed with DMORT teams following Hurricane Rita, Hurricane Katrina, and the 9/11 attacks. Funeral directors like Vigil are often selected for these roles because their skills—an ability to transport, prepare, and sometimes identify bodies in a time crunch—are at a premium in the aftermath of disasters.
“They’re like ‘Morticians Without Borders’, if you will,” John C. Mutter, a Columbia professor who researches natural disasters, told Earther, drawing an analogy to the Doctors Without Borders program that famously deploys medical professionals into disaster zones.
DMORT teams are not deployed during every natural disaster. Many states have their own emergency response teams, including their own localized versions of DMORT (Ohio has one called OMORT). States only request a DMORT team when their planned response has failed. “You don’t need DMORT if there are just a few bodies,” said Mutter.
Mortician first responders set up temporary morgues in tents, warehouses, and malls to identify and prepare bodies. They come equipped with x-rays, dental instruments, and tools for analyzing bones and DNA, all of which expedite identifications in a rushed post-disaster environment.
During Hurricane Katrina, Vigil and 100 colleagues traveled around Baton Rouge placing bodies in 22 refrigerated trucks and ferrying them to a temporary morgue “the size of a football field,” according to a contemporaneous New York Times report, where they helped perform nearly a thousand autopsies.
DMORT teams also play an important role in one of the most intensely political parts of the federal government’s response to a natural disaster: the body count. Although DMORT does not decide which deaths are caused by disasters and which just happened concurrently, their assistance frees up local officials who are responsible for answering those questions. The Trump administration infamously undercounted the number of dead after Hurricane Maria —placing the number at just 64 for months, while follow-up assessments pegged it at 1,000 to more than 5,000—but without DMORT, that botched response could have been much worse.
Robert Golden, a forensic scientist from Suffolk County, New York, led the 40-person DMORT region team to Puerto Rico after reports that morgues were overwhelmed. Families were not told what had happened to their loved ones; in the confusion, some bodies were cremated and therefore excluded from the official death toll.
“The funeral industry came to a standstill,” Golden told Earther. Because of a lack of power, gas, and functioning roads and phone lines, “hospitals were backed up with bodies. Doctors couldn’t get to hospitals to sign death certificates. Families couldn’t get to funeral directors. Cemeteries were closed.”
His team arrived in Puerto Rico at 3 a.m. on September 23, 2017, three days after the storm hit the island. “We grabbed a few hours of sleep, and then made our way to the San Juan medical examiner’s office,” Golden said.
The first problem they faced involved storage. Medical examiners keep bodies refrigerated to slow decomposition, but without a stable power supply, the San Juan medical examiner’s office—called the Institute of Forensic Sciences—was over-extending its generators to cool the bodies in its care. A group of DMORT members drove across the island sourcing 10 refrigerated trucks from other government agencies, which were then loaded with bodies and parked in the employee lot of the Institute of Forensic Sciences. DMORT morticians coordinated with local funeral directors about picking up remains.
“They worked side-by-side with the staff of the Institute doing the grunt work, carrying bodies, releasing bodies, helping the intake of remains,” Golden said, adding that without DMORT, “it would be much more difficult to accomplish the identifications and to have the bodies returned to their families in a timely fashion.”
Golden told Earther that he witnessed the short-staffed San Juan medical examiner wrestle with the question of when to attribute a death to Hurricane Maria. The decisions officials faced about which deaths should be counted toward the death toll were made all the more complex because of opaque directives from the Trump administration. Having people educated in death care to relieve those officials of day-to-day responsibilities so that they could work through questions regarding the death toll was imperative.
Part of the advantage of DMORT teams, particularly those that include morticians, is that they are resilient to the emotional weight of their work. “If you’re not used to dealing with deceased, that could be an overwhelming emotional, psychological trauma, but not really for us,” said Golden. “Dealing with death is something we’ve grown accustomed to.”
Still, the time pressures of responding to a natural disaster can induce new anxieties. DMORT members often race through 12-hour shifts amid intense political and public pressure, and Golden has struggled with officials who don’t understand that forensics is rarely a fast process. “You don’t want to be put into a panic mode, you don’t want to be rushed,” he said.
DMORT is still fairly new. In 1992, the National Funeral Directors Association, frustrated with the way the federal government was overlooking body management, pioneered the concept by creating the National Foundation for Mortuary Care—a now-defunct DMORT prototype. A decade later, the HHS replicated the concept by creating DMORT.
But despite being a young and obscure program, DMORT’s role—and that of morticians in general—is becoming increasingly important as the frequency and intensity, and human toll of those disasters accelerates due to climate change.
Robert Vigil may have been deployed to Paradise without a full DMORT team, but the fact that the U.S. government sent a funeral director at all signals that morticians may become part of the response to wildfires going forward. The Camp Fire was the deadliest wildfire in California’s history, but it’s also a sobering preview of what we can expect more of in a hotter, drier future. The final decision to request a DMORT team falls on California, but DMORT’s mandate seems set to expand to include wildfires and possibly other types of disasters.
“I think DMORT will be needed in the future,” said Golden. “As far as the federal response goes, without DMORT, it would be much more difficult to accomplish the identifications and to have the bodies returned to their families in a timely fashion. The world now is a dangerous place. I don’t see it getting any less dangerous.”
Michael Waters is a freelance writer and a junior at Pomona College.