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Katrina Death Toll Is in Flux

Varying definitions of what constitutes a storm-related fatality are keeping local and state officials from pinpointing a number.

November 02, 2005|Maurice Possley and John McCormick | Chicago Tribune

BATON ROUGE, La. — The official ranks of Hurricane Katrina's dead include a New Orleans man fatally shot nearly a week after the hurricane struck, an elderly nursing home patient who died 16 days after the storm and a toddler who drowned in a Texas hotel hot tub almost a month after being evacuated.

As local and state officials struggle to assess the human toll of one of the nation's worst natural disasters, they are using wildly varying definitions of what constitutes a storm-related death, a process that is yielding a sometimes-confusing accounting of those killed.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday November 03, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 45 words Type of Material: Correction
Katrina deaths -- An article in Wednesday's Section A about Hurricane Katrina deaths said Orleans Parish Coroner Frank Minyard was overseeing autopsies for the state. Minyard is overseeing autopsies in Orleans Parish. Dr. Louis Cataldie is the state medical examiner overseeing identification of the dead.

More than two months after the storm blasted New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, the precise death toll remains unknown, and may never be known.

Most of the confusion lies with how to classify evacuees who died -- many of them elderly -- and what constitutes an indirect death. Did stress from a lost home lead to a suicide? Would the toddler still be alive today if not for the hurricane?

"An 89-year-old man with cancer is in hospice care and is evacuated to a nursing home. He dies. Did the stress do him any good?" asks Don Moreau, operations chief for the East Baton Rouge Parish coroner. "Short of 1-800-ASK-GOD, I don't know how to determine that."

Unlike previous mass casualty incidents, such as the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks or the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City, Katrina's victims were spread out over hundreds of miles and died from a variety of causes.

Besides adding to the confusion of exactly how many were killed, the varying definitions will affect federal funding for funerals and recovery efforts. An accurate assessment is essential for epidemiologists and policy-makers in developing plans to reduce the number of future deaths.

No single government agency is charged with determining the official death toll, estimated by officials in Louisiana and Mississippi at nearly 1,300. But this total does not include evacuees who died in other states.

Officials with the Federal Emergency Management Agency say there have been 2,681 funeral benefit claims filed from around the country -- about twice as many as reported victims. Families have not yet received funeral benefits, although the first checks, typically several thousand dollars each, will be issued soon.

Meanwhile, Orleans Parish Coroner Frank Minyard said this week that the bodies recovered from a nursing home and hospital after Katrina were so decomposed they may not yield any evidence for prosecuting crimes.

Louisiana's attorney general charged the owners of a flooded-out nursing home in Chalmette with negligent homicide in mid-September after 34 bodies were discovered. He also has subpoenaed 73 people in an investigation into rumors that patients were put out of their misery at New Orleans' flooded-out Memorial Medical Center, where 40 people were found dead.

But Minyard, who is overseeing autopsies for the state, said the bodies from the two institutions were so decomposed that he listed the cause of death as "Katrina-related."

"There is no physical evidence from the autopsy that these people were murdered or euthanized," Minyard said. "If they did not have a knife sticking in them or a bullet in the body, it's hard pinpoint an exact cause."

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