The 19-Year Path To Identifying The Remains Of A Mother Who Disappeared In Hurricane Katrina

Tonette Jackson went missing in Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. (Othram via CNN Newsource)

By Kaila Nichols and Sara Smart, CNN

(CNN) — For anyone who watched the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina from afar, the vast devastation could have been captured by a single heartbreaking news interview.

A reporter from Gulf Coast TV station WKRG stopped Hardy Jackson as he walked the streets after the towering flood receded in Biloxi, Mississippi.

He couldn’t find his 46-year-old wife’s body.

“She’s gone,” he told the then-CNN affiliate.

Hardy and Tonette Jackson had been at home when Katrina hit in August 2005. They didn’t expect the water to rise so quickly, he explained. And as they moved to the attic, their house collapsed.

Hardy held onto a tree while also holding Tonette’s hand. But after a while, she realized he couldn’t hold on much longer, he continued. Tonette’s last request of him was to take care of their children and grandchildren.

They let go.

Soon after, Hardy stood with two boys in Biloxi, looked around at the ruins left by the flood and observed: “We ain’t got nowhere to go, nowhere to go. I’m, I’m lost. That’s all I had. That’s all I had.”

A week later, search crews found a body inland of Biloxi in St. Martin between slabs where two homes had been. But the remains couldn’t be identified, and so they were buried at Machpelah Cemetery in nearby Pascagoula under the name Jane (Love), according to information cited by Mississippi officials.

Meanwhile, the Jacksons could not find their matriarch. Tonette became one of 12,000 people reportedly missing in Louisiana and Mississippi after one of the strongest hurricanes in US history, with 1,392 fatalities and damages of $125 billion.

For the next five years, Hardy kept his promise to care for the children and grandchildren. But still, he and his family could not give Tonette a proper burial.

“They say my wife’s body gone to the bay. There’s nothing I can do,” Hardy told CNN in 2010. “Many times I woke up, I’ve been wishing it was a dream.”

And in 2013, Hardy passed away, his kin no closer to finding Tonette than they’d been when the storm swirled away from the shore.

‘It shouldn’t have taken this long’

The next decade saw major advances in DNA technology set the stage for new breaks in infamous unsolved crimes and missing persons cases. In Mississippi, the Bureau of Investigations and the State Medical Examiner’s Office took notice.

In 2023, a task force of those agencies set about once again trying to identify the unnamed Katrina victim found between those two slabs north of Biloxi, according the narrative cited by the bureau.

Experts exhumed the remains of Jane (Love) and sent them to Othram, a Texas-based company that used forensic genetic genealogy – a blend of DNA analysis and traditional family-tree research – to come up with leads for the state Investigations Bureau, according to a company news release.

Othram had helped Mississippi officials investigate other cases, bureau Special Agent Christa Groom told CNN. Funding came from Carla Davis, a philanthropist and genealogist at Othram “committed to resolving the backlog of cold cases” in the state, the company said.

Using Othram’s leads and “additional DNA testing of a close family member” of Tonette Jackson, a match for Jane (Love) was revealed:

After almost 19 years, science revealed the remains found a week after Katrina in St. Martin belonged to Tonette, the news release states.

Finally, her family could reclaim her remains. And officials could close the case of one more name etched into Mississippi’s granite memorial to those taken by Katrina.

“It shouldn’t have taken this long, yet here we are,” said Davis, the special agent, adding she is “just glad to get them some closure.”

“It’s a good feeling to know that you’ve helped them kind of be at peace because they waited a long time for this.”

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