Devastated: Missing Persons in Natural Disasters

Devastated: Missing Persons in Natural Disasters

natural disastersMany individuals who lived through natural disaster in the year 2018 lost loved ones to violent forces of nature. National news has been inundated, not only with updated death totals, but also long lists of names belonging to individuals who went missing during the disaster. The initial report in a missing persons case is a springboard for many complicated processes and procedures conducted by law enforcement and private investigators. Every relevant piece of information about the missing person must be collected, their last known whereabouts searched. If law enforcement determines the person is in immediate danger, or if they’re a minor, search teams are dispatched to the surrounding areas. The family makes themselves sick with worry. Spreading like a crack in a dam, the web of processes that stem from the first report can cause a cacophony of confusion. Now imagine that multiplied by five, or ten times. Or 1,276 times.

At its peak, that was the highest estimated number of missing persons during the coverage of California’s Camp Fire. Often, stories about mass groups of people vanishing are couched in mystery, intrigue, or even the paranormal, like the disappearance of the infamous Roanoke Colony that vanished off the coast of present-day North Carolina. Or Flight 370 of Malaysia Airlines, which was carrying 239 passengers and crew to Beijing when it mysteriously went missing over the South China Sea in 2014. In 2018, however, instances of long lists of missing persons following a single event have been instigated by tragedy—not intrigue.

State officials addressing this number have assured the public this number is an overestimation. One of the most complicated aspects of searching for missing persons during and after a natural disaster is the major breakdown in communication. During a natural disaster, individuals will often report loved ones missing when they are unable to contact, which could be for a myriad of reasons (downed power lines, lack of Wi-Fi, displacement, injury, etc.) After a few days, the loved one is able to establish a lifeline and is able to reach out to their family and friends. State officials claim  the reporting individuals often do not call to follow up with emergency operations teams to let them know their loved one has been located.

hurricane michael Like in cases of individuals going missing, survivors of Hurricane Michael have had to turn to crowdsourcing in order to track down missing loved ones, an effort crippled by a devastated infrastructure and incapacitated communication systems. Police departments have become inundated with missing persons reports and individuals are turning to multiple entities in order to get answers to the whereabouts of their loved ones—individuals like Tracey Stinson of Fort Walton Beach. Her father lived in Youngstown at the time of the hurricane, and had not heard from him in many days. “I actually tried calling a store he shops at that’s near his home that was gone. So I was unable to reach them so then the next step was contact the sheriff’s office. I just kept calling every several hours to see if I could catch them with a phone line that was operating and there was no luck.”

Desperate parents and loved ones also combed Facebook for news or tips, and implored others for any information they might have about missing loved ones. Despite a classification of a Category 4 storm, there were many in the panhandle who doubled down inside their homesteads, rather than evacuate.

One of these people was Nicholas Sines, who lived in Panama City. His mother, Kristine Wright, begged him to go to a shelter before the storm ripped through the city. But Nicholas was steadfast, “I’m staying here.” Kristine went six days without hearing from her son before she took to Facebook, imploring other users to share any information they might have. “I’m not sleeping, I’m not eating,” she told The New York Times. “As his mother, my heart hurts.” It goes beyond earnest timeline posts and comments, however.

crowdsourcing missing person In 2014, following the terrorist attacks on Paris that claimed 129 lives, Facebook launched what’s known as its Safety Check Feature. The Safety Check Feature is turned on by Facebook administrators in the wake of any type of displacement disaster, whether it be natural or at the hands of man. The system sends out a notification to users in the effected area, prompting users to mark themselves as “safe,” if they are able. This action places an item in the user’s feed that will alert others on their friends list that they are okay.

Social media is not the only recourse for those desperate to get in touch with a missing loved one in the wake of a natural disaster. Platforms like CrowdSource Rescue have been connecting concerned individuals with their loved ones living in areas effected by natural disasters. It allows citizens to file a report for a missing person, which places their data on a map that directs rescue teams to the most affected areas. Company co-founder, Matthew Marchetti, told NPR, “We’re like a ride share company for disasters.”

Camp Fire Unfortunately, hurricanes were not the only natural disaster erasing entire communities in 2018. In a gross irony, the town of Paradise, California was reduced to a pile of smoldering rubble after it was consumed by a behemoth wildfire. The pictures of the devastation are truly haunting, evoking scenes from post-apocalyptic Hollywood films. Before the blaze erupted, Paradise was a town of around 27,000 people. It’s beautiful sights and small-community atmosphere made it a popular place for retirees to begin the third act of their lives. As such, a majority of the remains pulled from the debris and wreckage were found to be retirement age or older.

The California Camp Fire will go down in the history books as the deadliest and most devastating wildfire the nation has ever seen. Officials have only recently announced the fire has been 100% contained with fire-lines. It burned 150,000 acres (ten times the size of Manhattan), claimed the lives of 85 Californians, and left thousands displaced and homeless in tent cities. In the chaos, 200 people are still unaccounted for. In the past few weeks some reports listed the number of missing as high as 1,276 on November 17th, but just like the circumstances during Hurricane Michael, that number dropped dramatically once displaced Californians were able to find a line of communication to their families.

Investigators have been working for months attempting to identify the source of the California Campfire, but no single cause has yet to be determined. Meanwhile, rescue officials are still sifting through the rubble. Kory Honea of the Butte County Sheriff’s Department told the Huffington Post that they could not say with certainty how long the search will take, “My sincere hope is the majority of people on that list…will be accounted for.”

The dramatic drop in the number of missing is not unlike that of the Sonoma County Tubbs Fire in 2017. The number of missing during the Tubbs Fire was almost double that of the Camp Fire, but dropped to just 22 as individuals were located or found deceased. However, during the Tubbs Fire, search and rescue officials opted not to publish the names of those feared missing under caution during a disaster that was constantly in flux. Kory Honea had a different mindset: Publishing the list meant drawing out information from the public that could help officials whittle the list of missing from a sequoia down to a splinter. When questioned about whether or not possible inaccuracies on the list might cause issues, Honea said, “I can’t let perfection get in the way of progress. It is important for us to get the information out so we can get started identifying these individuals.”

Identification of the remains found is a grueling process, not only for officials involved in Camp Fire, but any natural disaster in the United States. Officials in paradise have collected DNA samples from those who tragically perished in the inferno, but are left with little recourse to identify them without help from the public. Jim Davis, the Chief Federal Officer of ANDE told ABC, “The only way we can identify those people is to have family members submit reference samples so we can match the two.” At the Family Assistance Center in Paradise, ANDE collected 68 family donor samples, but it’s nowhere near enough. Hundreds of family samples will be needed in order to confirm victims’ identities. Davis attributes the community’s hesitance towards this identification measure to the bleak confirmation of their loved one’s tragic demise, “As we’ve collected samples from people, you know we see this emotion that comes with accepting the possibility that their loved ones are gone.”

Since the development of DNA forensic technology, mass collection and catalog of DNA samples has been the subject of privacy debate. While everyone has a right to privacy, there are monumental benefits to a large database of DNA samples that go beyond victim identification. As such, legal professionals at Fordham University issued a report proposing principles that find the middle in the DNA privacy debate. The abstract reads:

“The report offers a roadmap to the legal and policy issues surrounding privacy and missing persons following natural disasters. It provides strategies that humanitarian organizations, private sector organizations, volunteers, and policymakers can pursue to help those affected by major natural disasters… the report recommends that those developing technologies to share information about missing persons implement design principles that carefully balance privacy consistent with existing legal obligations. The report also calls on privacy policymakers, legislators, and regulators to take steps to clarify how privacy rules apply to missing persons activities in identified key areas so that missing persons activities can proceed without the threat of legal liability.”

Rescue officials have the monumental task of containing a natural disaster, searching the effected area for victims of its fatal destruction, and finally giving names to the remains—a process that can take weeks or even months. Meanwhile, Americans across the nation wait with bated breath for information about their loved ones living in or around Paradise, California. Relief organizations from FEMA to the Red Cross have online resources with steps private citizens can take to find information about missing persons after a natural disaster. While the reality of submitting one’s DNA for identification purposes might impose an emotional toll that’s too great for some, it is one of the most effective way to get definitive answers. Families can find closure in knowing the fate of their lost relative or friend.

The Red Cross offers many tips and strategies for locating and reaching out to loved ones that go beyond the straightforward. In addition to calling other family members and utilizing social media tools, individuals are also encouraged to call or visit places their loved one was known to frequent, like Tracey Stinson did when she asked around at her missing father’s usual grocery store. Resources also recommend calling during off-peak hours to increase their chances of getting through to an operator or official.

Following Camp Fire, many families and single individuals spent their Thanksgiving in warehouses, shelters, and tent cities in grocery store parking lots, with everything they own in a few small suitcases. For many, there is no home to return to when the natural destruction is finally snuffed out. According to relief organizations throughout the United States, the name of the game now is reunification—doing whatever is possible to reconnect those displaced by tragedy to their remaining loved ones. For example, one of the many reunification resources offered by FEMA is a collaborative effort with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, supporting all measures to return minors under the age of 21 to their parents or guardians. The American Red Cross has a similar database project called Safe and Well, which is an online database designed to help reunited families. Regardless of the scale of the disaster, Safe and Well is administered 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, and works closely with the local Red Cross Chapter of the area in question. While many will experience the miracle of reunification, the terrible reality is that so many more will be left with unanswered questions.

Carie McMichael is the Communication and Media Specialist for Lauth Investigations International. She regularly writes on investigation and missing persons topics. For more information, please visit our website.

Beyond Our Horizons: Americans Missing Overseas

Beyond Our Horizons: Americans Missing Overseas

Americans across the country have a bizarre fascination with all things foreign. When it comes to international travel and foreign countries, attitudes can range from a wanton Western wanderlust to a macabre fascination with the fear of the unknown.  Young people nearing a graduation often make plans to go backpacking through Europe in the hopes of broadening their horizons before taking the next step on life’s path. Many volunteer to assist in relief efforts overseas following a natural disaster. Others travel overseas to visit with family they might not have seen in decades.

On the reverse side of the coin, where some Americans might associate all things foreign with class or the exotic, there are others with a less favorable approach. American cinema, especially genres like action or horror, plays heavily on the American anxieties surrounding foreign countries and international travel. One of the most blatant examples of this is the Hostel film series, in which young backpackers trekking through the Slavic countries are kidnapped and held captive by a secret society with grisly motives. The American anxiety of being on one’s own in a foreign country—where you are a stranger to everyone and few strangers speak your language—is not lost on foreign filmmakers either. In 2008, when the English-language French action thriller Taken was released, it broke the record for best opening day ever for Super Bowl weekend. One of the unfortunate reasons Americans cling to the suspense and drama of films like these is because the horror is all too real. U.S. citizens go missing overseas and in North America every week, and with funding and resources for searches low, families are left with nothing but prayers for a Liam Neeson type to bring their loved ones home.

Despite the American anxiety surrounding international travel, the National Travel and Tourism Office saw an eight percent increase in international travel in 2016. In that year, 66,960,943 citizens utilized their passports to visit countries within North America and overseas. Many Americans have a Bucket List—a list of things they’d like to experience before shuffling off this mortal coil—and one of the most common items on bucket lists is travel, especially international travel. In 2009, David Gimelfarb was one of those millions of people travelling abroad. In the bustling hive of Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport, Roma and Luda Gimelfarb said goodbye to their son before he departed for a week’s vacation in Costa Rica. “The last thing we know about our son,” they told the Chicago Tribune, “is that on August 11, 2009, he paid a $10 entry fee and signed up for a two-hour hike in Rincon de la Vieja National Park.” This month, it will have been nine years since David Gimelfarb went out for that hike and never came back. As recently as 2013, Roma and Luda were still fielding emails and phone calls from people who claim they have seen David wandering around Costa Rica. The reports described this person “spoke cautiously with people (David speaks Spanish fluently) and doesn’t appear to know who he is (possibly has amnesia).” Is it possible that David hit his head while on the hike and woke up with no memory of who he was?

The tragedy is that Roma and Luda Gimelfarb will likely never have that level of closure regarding their son’s disappearance. It’s important to remember that even in the United States missing adults are not a high priority for law enforcement. Adults have the liberty to go missing if they please, and police are not in the habit of pouring labor hours and resources into finding someone who might not want to be found. What’s worse is that once they’re out of the country, the American authorities are left with no jurisdiction and no recourse. The Gimelfarbs went on to say in the article, “American embassies have no budget or trained personnel to assist the families or local foreign governments in their search for missing Americans. Though the U.S. government provides funds for numerous programs abroad and spent $47.8 billion in 2012 to support them, none of these programs provides funds or personnel to search for missing Americans abroad.

An individual’s career can often take them overseas or beyond the United States, sometimes for an extended period of time. Such was the case with 41-year-old Robert Durbin, who went missing in Kingston, Jamaica. Robert was lecturing on law on the weekends on behalf of an international program run by the University of London. When asked about the reason for his visit to Jamaica, the West Hartford Town Councilman said he hoped to glean insight from learning about the culture of West Indian people, “I’m living and volunteering in a low-income development down here. It’s a very up-and-coming, low-income area, so it’s a nice opportunity to work with some social workers. Obviously, this area is a lot different from West Hartford… but my work here in the community will contribute to my service on the town council.”

Months later, Robert was charged with first-degree criminal trespass when he arrived on the scene of a domestic disturbance to offer his legal services to the persons involved. This led to him resigning from the Town Council while he was in the middle of a divorce. Arrested in development, he decided to return to Jamaica to continue the volunteer work he began during his initial visits. Following his return to Jamaica in May of 2012, all attempts to contact him proved fruitless. With so little information available at the time he was reported missing, his case still remains open as of 2018.

Natural disasters can have a devastating effect on a country’s tourism, but there a visible trend following these disasters: an influx of both American and other foreign individuals who travel to the effected area in hopes of volunteering for relief efforts. These “volun-tourists” are usually only in the country for a week or two, participating in a project that would serve underprivileged communities, such as building a school, or a clinic, or even a well so locals can have access to clean water. A website that serves as a guide to relief and volunteer programs overseas compared the data regarding where and what Americans are researching in order to seek out opportunities. The 2012 Annual Volunteer Report reveals that the top countries that are a point of interest for prospective volunteers are the Philippines, India, and Thailand. It makes sense, given that the same report showed that Asia is the top region for areas that receive droves of relief-volunteers. Over half the list of the top fifteen searched countries for prospective volunteers are located within the Asian region.

While backpacking through Southeast Asia, Dahlia Yehia decided to rest in the town of Pokhara, Nepal while she determined the next stop on her trip. She’d put together a modest sum of savings from her time as an art instructor in order to backpack across the pan-Asian continent. On August 5th, 2015, she arrived in Pokhara, only a few weeks after an earthquake that registered 7.8 on the Richter scale shook the whole of the Kathmandu Valley and nearby villages. In the interim, Dahlia decided she would be useful by volunteering for the relief effort. For lodging, she turned to the economy-travel site Couchsurfing, where she connected with a local by the name of Narayan Paudel. He had great reviews on the economy-travel website, so Dahlia decided to stay with him.

Despite inconsistent cell phone service at the foot of the mountains, Dahlia still found time to check in with friends and family when she could. She had nothing but nice things to say about her new Couchsurfing host, claiming she had dinner with him and his girlfriend. Then, when several days went by with no word from Dahlia, a friend became concerned and started reaching out to Dahlia’s family to see if anyone had heard from her. He also reached out to Couchsurfing support staff to tell them he was concerned for Dahlia, but that came to nothing. Her family had to turn to Apple, where an emergency support team advised that they might be able to track her movements using a unique 15-digit code assigned to all cellular hardware known as the International Mobile Equipment Identity, or IMEI.

Finally, the U.S. Embassy was notified that Dahlia was missing in Nepal, and the family provided them with her IMEI for the investigation. They told the embassy that the last person to see Dahlia was likely her Couchsurfing host, but the information obtained with Dahlia’s IMEI revealed that someone had put a new SIM card in the phone long after Dahlia was reported missing. The SIM card was purchased by Narayan Paudel. This led to Paudel’s arrest and subsequent confession to her murder.

Were it not for the intervention of Apple, who knows if the family might have ever received a modicum of closure in Dahlia’s disappearance? Sharing services like Couchsurfing are on the rise as more apps like Uber and Airbnb continue to grow in size and in revenue creating what has been referred to as a “sharing economy”. There is a legal gray area that attorneys would call “assumption of responsibility” when it comes to utilizing these services. When Generation X was young, there was no second thought when it came to getting into a stranger’s car for a ride. Now, placing your trust and safety in a complete stranger—especially a stranger you met through the internet—is considered one of the most dangerous decisions you can make. Businesses in the sharing economy are not insensitive to these anxieties, and most offer some form of a verification system. However, most companies take pains to distance themselves from the actions of their individual employees in order to avoid litigation. Couchsurfing, for example, offers user verification for $20 per year, but in the fine print, there is always a disclaimer that frees Couchsurfing from responsibility involved in any relations between host and guest. Users are urged to report “anyone through our services who you feel is acting or has acted inappropriately.” It emphasizes, however, “[W]e are not obligated to take any action.”

Unfortunately, Dahlia is not an isolated incident. It’s frightfully common for people to vanish while visiting Nepal. Until 2011, the U.S. State Department had an active travel warning in effect for Nepal. In addition to cautioning tourists about the civil unrest occurring in the country, the State Department also had a piece of advice for the tourists who travel to Nepal in hope hiking some of the most coveted treks on any backpacker’s list:

“Solo trekking can be dangerous, and the lack of available immediate assistance has contributed to injuries and deaths, while also making one more vulnerable to criminals. Although it is not prohibited by local law, the Government of Nepal has reiterated its strong recommendation against solo trekking. In separate incidents in the last several years, a number of foreign women (including U.S. citizens) on popular trails have been attacked and seriously injured while trekking alone.”

This warning did not shake 23-year-old Aubrey Sacco, who was dead-set on witnessing the beauty of the Himalayan Mountains up close and personal. She was nearing the end of her post-college adventure, maintaining nearly constant contact with her parents throughout. On the day Aubrey went missing, she told her mother she had decided to make the “tea-house trek” in Langtang National Park—the first Himalayan national park. Her mother was concerned because her father was having surgery that day, and was worried that she wouldn’t be able to contact her daughter if something went wrong, but Aubrey assured her, “Don’t worry. It’s teahouse trekking.” In the investigation following her disappearance, Aubrey’s parents learned that the day she went missing, she had an encounter with three men she met at the Sherpa Lodge on the hike. The men initiated a conversation, and at first things were cordial, but when Aubrey announced that she had to be moving on to the next village, Riverside, things took a tense turn. The men began repeatedly insisting that it was too long of a hike to start so late in the afternoon. Firm in her conviction, Aubrey said, “Riverside is only an hour from here, don’t lie to me.”

For all intents and purposes, there is no evidence that Aubrey made it to her next destination. No other witnesses could place her at any location beyond Riverside. Given the last witnessed encounter between Aubrey and the locals, it’s easy to assume that these aggressive men might have been the architects of her disappearance, but there are many other theories that exclude their encounter altogether. It’s important to remember the U.S. State Department’s warning regarding solo-trekking in the Himalayas, citing natural hazards and the implications of being injured on the hike with no immediate help nearby. It’s possible that Aubrey shared the fate of many who had attempted the trek alone, maybe slipping from a rain-soaked embankment, or toppling over a cliff.

Another theory inculpating harm at the hands of another person is the predatory culture surrounding the military bases that are scattered throughout the Himalayas. Tracy Ross, a journalist digging into the mystery surrounding Aubrey’s disappearance, detailed some of the incidents involving soldiers that had been reported in the past, “In July 2010, three French girls reported being sexually assaulted by the soldiers manning a check post called Ghora Tabela, not far from where Aubrey vanished. Later, two more Western women were attacked in the same region in separate incidents, one in 2011 and the other in 2012.” Ross goes on to illuminate just how difficult it was to get information about this American woman’s disappearance. “If the Nepali police keep records of exactly how many female trekkers have been the victims of violent crime, they won’t say (the police didn’t respond to repeated requests for information for this story). For that matter, it’s hard to determine how many trekkers, male or female, have gone missing over the years, whatever the reason.”

This is not surprising, as police departments in developing countries like Nepal are woefully underfunded and often do not have the resources to properly investigate missing persons cases. Given Aubrey’s age at the time of her disappearance, if she had gone missing within the United States, the investigation would still have had significant roadblocks because she was not a minor. But Aubrey didn’t go missing in America. She went missing over 8,000 miles away. Search efforts conducted by U.S. Embassy, the Nepali Army, and Aubrey’s own father turned up nothing, but continued for more than two years after her disappearance. It is the longest, most expensive search in Nepal’s history.

During the more frustrating phases of the investigation, when it was impossible to get any information from Nepali law enforcement, Aubrey’s parents hired a private investigator. According to The Daily Camera, it was one of the factors that kept the case alive long after Nepali authorities stopped looking for Aubrey. The issues in Nepal that American law enforcement often encounters when investigating a missing adult that were only compounded by the distance and the jurisdiction. There are many cases like Aubrey’s in which underfunded, underequipped, disorganized law enforcement in countries overseas cannot connect with United States embassies or refuse to release information outright. However, with a private investigator chasing leads in an overseas disappearance, there are no jurisdictional issues, no red tape preventing them from contacting agencies, governing bodies, or law enforcement. There is no issue of paperwork, such as warrants to track individuals that might sit on a superior’s desk for days while precious time and leads are lost. Private investigators are beholden only to the client, and thus their search for the truth is unbridled and in-depth.

In America, there are rights and laws that protect private citizens from persecution on behalf of law enforcement without cause. As a country, Americans have only recently begun to cultivate a suspicious attitude towards law enforcement, but abroad, distrust of law enforcement is ubiquitous depending on longitude. In countries where citizens live in fear of a corrupt system and retaliation from the police, it can be impossible for investigators to pull valuable information from witnesses. This is where private investigators truly have an advantage over law enforcement. Because they have no powers of arrest—in the United States or anywhere—witnesses feel more at ease providing details to someone who cannot arrest them. Considering that police interrogations can take hours just to get a simple answer, private investigators can use that time to pursue leads and garner more case progression.

Even though private investigators have no powers of arrest, it can still be difficult to interview witnesses who know they’re being interrogated, or even witnesses who are—at best—uncooperative. When Tracy Ross traveled to Nepal for background on the story she was writing about Aubrey, the locals were less than enthusiastic about talking to her, “Over and over, villagers told me that they knew nothing about Aubrey and they wished people would stop asking. Two young girls giggled, then turned bitter, saying they didn’t care anymore that this girl had vanished.” Soldiers who assisted in the search for Aubrey told Ross that they had done their due-diligence and there was nothing left to talk about. When this is the case, private investigators have the necessary skill and experience to go undercover and blend in with tourists and locals. From this inconspicuous position, they can conduct surveillance, pull information from unsuspecting witnesses or suspects, and document it every step of the way.

When loved ones vanish into thin air, everyone who would miss them feels helpless, and everyone feels as if there could be no cause more pressing than finding that loved one again. The reality is that Americans go missing every day, both children and adults, and it is nearly impossible for law enforcement to treat every single case with the attention it ultimately deserves. It usually comes down to simple facts when law enforcement is triaging their case load: Is this person in immediate danger? Are they over the age of 18? Could they have disappeared of their own accord? These are questions that bear little weight in the minds of loved ones when it comes to their diligence in getting answers. However, regardless of your circumstances, the universal truth behind hiring a private investigator to locate your missing loved one overseas is that their expertise is applied to the specifics of your case. They are beholden to you and only you. They have very similar expertise and resources to law enforcement with the added peace of mind that your child or loved one will never just become a file laying idly on a desk.

Carie McMichael is the Communication and Media Specialist for Lauth Investigations International, a private investigation firm based in Indianapolis, Indiana–delivering proactive and diligent solutions for over 30 years. For more information, please visit our website.