WEST JORDAN — Jeff Zealley had just come home from one of his four month-long trips to Louisiana in the aftermath of 2005's infamous Hurricane Katrina when his son asked him if he'd like to play a war-based video game.
"Normally, I was fine with that. But when he asked me, I said, 'Normally I would, but I can't right now,'" Zealley recalled. "Death is not entertainment to me right now."
Even for Zealley, a licensed funeral home director of more than 20 years and a professor of mortuary science at Salt Lake Community College, the magnitude of death and suffering due to a natural disaster as calamitous as Hurricane Katrina required a step back from the fray.
"People (like myself) are used to dealing with death," he told the Deseret News in his office on the college's Jordan Campus. "They're not used to dealing with it on a large scale."
Zealley is one of just a handful of people in the state who are tasked with considering how to accurately identify bodies, establish makeshift mortuaries, ensure victims' remains are reunited with loved ones, and even recover once-buried caskets following a cataclysmic event accompanied by mass fatalities.
"Of course, our biggest fear here is an earthquake," he said.
Many Utahns may idly wonder how their communities would handle such an event, and several state agencies have plans for how they would mitigate damage and save lives in an emergency. But Zealley and the other 10 or so members of the Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Team who live in Utah face the lonely task of preparing for what happens right after the absolute worst possible outcomes come to fruition in a public safety disaster.
"What do we do when the sky falls?" Zealley asked rhetorically, though he knows it's really his job to answer that question with confidence.
Many disasters may only require the work of a response team within a state or designated region, but a few of the largest scale ones — Hurricane Katrina being an example — require assistance from Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Teams from throughout the country. Besides funeral directors, members of such teams include forensic anthropologists, medical examiners and dentists.
In June, Zealley completed nearly a week of hands-on disaster scenario training at the Center for Domestic Preparedness in Anniston, Alabama. While there, Zealley and others like him "drill on gathering as much information as possible to help identify individuals, as they would during actual incidents," according to U.S. Department of Health and Human Services spokesman Dirk Fillpot.
"The setup is very realistic," Zealley said. "We practice as we would actually work."
Realistic dummies brought in "are taken through the morgue process," he said, including taking inventory of their clothing, jewelry and other defining physical characteristics. Local Alabama families are brought in to act the part of grieving loved ones. The response team even wears the very same uniforms they would during the real thing.
Zealley said building up stress factors during training "makes working in the actual incident easier" and builds camaraderie with those he could see again in the event of a disaster.
Such companionship can be a godsend in exhausting circumstances, like the ones Zealley encountered while working 18-hour day after 18-hour day during the recovery from Hurricane Katrina.
"It was just nonstop," he said.
He did this all while catching sleep at night on a cot in a gymnasium near Baton Rouge. It wasn't uncommon there to see grown men and women sleeping with Spiderman sheets — like so many others, volunteers "just bought whatever was (still) on the shelf."
Much like it would if disaster struck Utah, Zealley's disaster work in Louisiana went well beyond identifying bodies. He and his team were given the somber behind-the-scenes task of retrieving caskets washed out from destroyed graveyards and conducting reburials.
Some upheaved caskets were found adrift in unusual places, including one that was found resting almost completely vertically against a tree. Many could not be salvaged and had to be replaced with new ones Zealley's team had been equipped with.
The effort, which Zealley said "will always be one of the significant events of my life," was solemn and laborious. He coped, as he often has in the funeral business, by remembering the essential nature of his work and forming deep friendships with others tasked with it.
"We remember what our purpose is," he said. "We are here to help people during a traumatic event. There are very close bonds that are formed. It's very rewarding — you're doing something that needs to be done, and you're capable of doing it."
Zealley — who first decided he wanted to become certified in disaster response because of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks — has also found silver linings in the better natures of people that are activated by the worst of circumstances.
"As tragic as events like these are, it does unite people," he said. "So there is some good that can come out of it. It's a good reminder of what's really important in life."
Helping a reeling community properly take care of its dead requires a high level of vigorous training, but Zealley, like so many who work in disaster response, stresses that simple personal preparedness is a crucial factor in actually reducing deaths and injuries in a catastrophe.
"Just being able to take care of yourself for a little while is important," he said.
Important emergency kit items, of course, include food, he said, but people sometimes underestimate how much water to set aside in case of emergency.
"(Say) the earthquake ruptures the water line — the water is gone," Zealley said.
Other frequently forgotten items needed in emergencies are tools to cook food with, warm clothing, pet food and even a full tank of gas, according to Zealley. In the disaster preparedness community, it is said that "half a tank is an empty tank," he said, because of how quickly gas stations run dry in an emergency.
On top of those measures, Zealley said it's wise for families to identify a place where they can meet in case they can't get in touch with each other through other means.
"It could be hours or days before you know anything about other family members," he said.