Brooklyn Dentist Helps ID Victims of Hurricane Katrina
By Stephen Witt


Sheepshead Bay periodontist, Dr. Stuart Segelnick, DDS, pictured in Gulfport. Mississippi. Segelnick recently spent two weeks in the town helping identify victims of Hurricane Katrina.
It’s a long way from Sheepshead Bay to those needing emergency help along the Hurricane Katrina ravaged coast of Mississippi, but one local dentist did just that.

Dr. Stuart Segelnick, a periodontist specializing in gum treatments and implants, spent two weeks in the flattened coastal town of Gulfport, where he was charged with the gruesome task of helping identify the dead through their dental records.

“When I was there, we processed over 150 remains, and it was very sad because they were very decomposed from the weather,” recalled Segelnick. “The saddest thing was taking the X-rays of a two-year old child and the teeth were falling out as I did it.”

Segelnick said he became involved in disaster relief efforts immediately following the September 11 terrorist attacks, when he wanted to help out.

However, after sending his credentials to the medical examiner’s office, he was told he did not have the proper forensic training.

One thought led to another, and Segelnick decided to take the five-day training course given in San Antonio, Texas to attain the proper training and be prepared if “God forbid there was another disaster.”

After taking the training, Segelnick became part of FEMA’s (Federal Emergency Management Agency) DMORT (Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Team).

DMORT teams consist of private citizens with forensic expertise.

The team is made up of forensic dentists, pathologists, anthropologists, medical examiners/coroners, DNA and fingerprint specialists, funeral directors/embalmers and mental health specialists.

Once a volunteer is deployed, they become federal employees for the duration of their deployment.

After receiving the training in 2002, Segelnick went back to his practice at 1603 Voorhies Avenue, and didn’t think much about his new training.

Then on Wednesday, August 31, DMORT called, wanting to deploy him down south to help victims of Hurricane Katrina.

“My wife knew that emergencies never can be planned and was very supportive,” said Segelnick.

“I had my staff cancel my patients for two weeks [the length of deployment] and called a friend, Dr. Steven Schwartz, to take care of any emergencies or suture removals in my absence,” he added.

Segelnick boarded a plane for Atlanta the next night and from there got a crash course on quick deployment. Upon arrival, he was immediately told to take an SUV at the airport to a fort located in Aniston, Alabama.

He arrived at the fort at about 2:30 a.m., and was directed to a barrack for a few hours of shut-eye, and the next morning met with some of his DMORT teammates.

After a quick trip to a Wal-Mart to purchase a sleeping bag, Segelnick and his team were whisked to Gulfport in a 13-SUV convoy.

“At the Mississippi border, we noted gas stations completely empty and we headed toward one station that seemed to have the only fuel in the area,” he said. “The station was guarded by police and only allowed government vehicles to fill up.”

Segelnick said the closer the convoy got to Gulfport, the more he saw downed trees and electric poles.

At last they arrived in the devastated town and made their way to the airport, where the team was taken to an empty former meat packaging storage facility.

That night Segelnick slept in a refrigerated tractor trailer, outfitted with wooden slabs to hold the remains of victims, and for the next two days he lived the life of a recruit on the front lines – no latrines, cold showers and little other comforts in the 100-degree-plus heat.

Then the victims started coming in. The first day, Segelnick and his DMORT team had to move 30 or 40 bodies in one of the refrigerated trucks to another truck.

“We had to move them in 110-degree weather and some were not in body bags and [we] had to move the bodies to another truck,” said Segelnick.

Segelnick said even though he had a gross anatomy course in dental school and dealt with cadavers at the training course in Texas, he had never dealt with so many human remains.

“It’s a smell you will never forget,” he recalled, adding that once there, however, his training took over and he got the job done.

“After a two-week stay, our team had processed all the victims, and at that time, there were no more entering the morgue,” said Segelnick.

Segelnick also credited his DMORT team members as a very select group of people, who bonded strongly, no matter which department they worked with.

Segelnick said the two-week stay wasn’t easy financially, but he felt and still feels going there was the right thing to do.

“They asked me when I left if I was still willing to do it, and I would definitely do it again without hesitation,” he said.