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WHERE THEY DIED

When it came to choosing its victims, Hurricane Katrina spared few neighborhoods. In fact, Gentilly and the lakefront may have suffered as many deaths as the Lower 9th.
Sunday, October 23, 2005
By Coleman Warner
and Robert Travis Scott%%par%%Staff writers

Although Hurricane Katrina's deaths are widely believed to have been concentrated in the Lower 9th Ward and eastern New Orleans, new estimates show large numbers of bodies were found in a swath from the Industrial Canal to the 17th Street Canal.

And more than a few people died in Mid-City, Central City and Uptown.

The new report, posted by the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals on a Web site Friday night, shows that the largest numbers of bodies were found in ZIP codes 70117, covering the Lower 9th Ward and some neighborhoods to the east bordering St. Claude Avenue, and 70122, including Gentilly and other neighborhoods between Old Gentilly Road and the Lakefront.

Between 31 and 75 bodies were recovered in each of the two ZIP codes, including neighborhoods devastated by water rushing from levee breaks. The map didn't reflect deaths at hospitals, nursing homes and other medical facilities, or bodies that lacked a reliable geographic record. State officials didn't explain why they used wide ranges for body counts.

The estimates show that even in areas where nearly everyone was believed to have the means to evacuate, including mostly white, affluent neighborhoods, the hurricane had deadly effects.

Data on the causes of death during the Aug. 29 storm are still unavailable through most state and federal sources, but coroners and other local officials are beginning to offer a varied portrait.

Among the findings:

-- In Orleans Parish, accounting for more than 700 of 1,056 bodies recovered by Friday, drownings and exacerbated medical conditions were leading causes, with the dividing line between the two often difficult to discern.

-- In St. Bernard Parish, swept by a storm surge estimated at more than 20 feet, drowning is the suspected cause of death for nearly all of 123 victims recovered so far, but in Jefferson Parish, carbon monoxide poisonings, suicides, accidents and drownings were cited in 22 Katrina-related deaths, officials say.

-- The relatively small numbers of Katrina deaths reported in other parishes, including seven in St. Tammany and three in Plaquemines, were attributed by local officials mostly to drowning and storm-related accidents.

The age factor

Age has emerged as a central theme in early post-Katrina death analyses. Victims tended to be older, unable or unwilling to travel and, in many cases, suffering from medical problems that increased the risk they would drown or succumb to heat exhaustion, experts said.

At least 60 percent of the dead identified so far were 61 or older, according to state data.

"You had a combination of devastating flood waters and elderly and infirm populations with fewer resources. That equals fatalities," said Dr. Jullette Saussy, director of Emergency Medical Services for the city of New Orleans and one of those who fielded desperate cell phone calls from New Orleanians trapped by water.

Although many drowned, she said, others couldn't stand the sweltering conditions without medical care: "You either died from heat, dehydration, or you were overcome by exacerbation of your chronic medical condition and the lack of attention to that."

Saussy recalled one frantic call from an eastern New Orleans woman who asked for instructions replacing an oxygen tank an elderly relative needed to stay alive. The coaching didn't work, and Saussy doesn't know if rescuers made it to the home in time.

"She couldn't get it," Saussy said. "I couldn't talk her through it."

St. Bernard Parish Coroner Bryan Bertucci said the vast majority of victims in his parish were people in their late 60s and 70s, with only one child among the bodies found in the parish.

"A lot of the victims had medical conditions and were less likely to be able to swim to safety," he said.

Dr. Louis Cataldie, medical incident commander for the recovery of Katrina dead, offered a simple response to questions about victims: "It's primarily folks who I think could not or would not leave. Perhaps they couldn't drive."

Details scarce

Details about the causes and locations of hurricane deaths have been scarce, as state and federal officials, along with Orleans Parish Coroner Frank Minyard, decline to respond to many specific inquiries.

Federal Emergency Management Agency spokesman Kim Pease referred questions to the Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Team, a federal agency charged with gathering voluminous data on most bodies found so far across the metro area. DMORT in turn deferred to the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals and said the state agency could make public any information it sees fit.

Documents on the deaths have been requested under state public records laws from Minyard and DHH, but they have not turned the records over.

So far, the state agency has furnished the name, gender, race and parish of residence of 150 victims whose bodies have been turned over to relatives, plus some general demographic and geographic data. The names have not been released on eight additional identified bodies.

Jefferson Parish has released the name and demographic information on 18 additional victims.

Top New Orleans officials in recent days, including Mayor Ray Nagin, said they still have little information about how and where people died.

"We're just in a mode where it's so difficult to retrieve medical information and data," said Councilwoman Cynthia Willard-Lewis, who represents eastern New Orleans and the Lower 9th Ward.

Although he has drawn national media attention since Katrina hit, Minyard said he and several associates are too busy conducting autopsies at a processing center in St. Gabriel to assemble data for news reporters. That center is handling the victims from Orleans and St. Bernard parishes, which account for more than 80 percent of the deaths from the storm in Louisiana.

Minyard said a computer data base that may allow for retrieving certain information is run by federal authorities who "go to great lengths to avoid the press."

DHH has gathered extensive data on the dead. Seventy percent of the individuals found dead were noted by exact geographic coordinates, DHH spokesman Bob Johannessen said. But the agency has not released the data, saying it doesn't yet consider it reliable.

Cataldie said 328 of the individuals at St. Gabriel, a group not reflected in the ZIP code map, had been recovered from health care facilities, including nursing homes and hospitals. Some of them died before the storm, so as officials verify the data, those people will be removed from the official count of Katrina dead. On Friday, the state health agency noted eight such individuals.

Also, some bodies from other parishes whose deaths were not related to the storm have been brought to St. Gabriel. Those individuals also will be removed from the official storm death count.

As of Friday, 354 bodies at St. Gabriel were unidentified.

Of the approximately 500 bodies at St. Gabriel that have been identified so far, 42 percent are African-American, 37 percent are white and 3 percent are Hispanic, according to data released Friday by the state health agency. A racial or ethnic designation hasn't been applied to about 18 percent of the bodies.

Although he had no sense of where bodies were found, Minyard said his impression is that most who died were elderly people with little access to transportation or money. About six of 10 fatalities in the parish were African-Americans, he said.

Few of the victims had visible injuries, he said.

"Most of the people died from natural causes -- heart conditions, liver problems, strokes -- and they had these conditions before the hurricane. The stress of the hurricane just brought them out and made them worse, and these people died," Minyard said. "We do know lots of people drowned, but drowning is a very difficult diagnosis to make two, three, four weeks after it happens, unless you find them floating in the lake or river or something. . . . The decomposition was so bad on most of these people."

In many cases, the exact cause of death will never be known, Minyard said. When a body was found floating outside a building, drowning is listed as the cause of death. When there was no sign of trauma and there may have been long-term medical problems at work, the death is simply listed as hurricane-related.

Exceptions to the rules

As family members are crying out for information on missing loved ones, the main objective of professionals at the St. Gabriel center is identifying the dead, Minyard said.

But exceptions have been made in the case of bodies recovered from nursing homes and hospitals. Attorney General Charles Foti has called for criminal investigations into deaths at such institutions.

The investigation, requiring autopsies and medical lab tests, stemmed from allegations that Memorial Medical Center doctors considered putting frail patients to death in the days after the storm and that owners of St. Rita's Nursing Home in St. Bernard Parish were negligent in the deaths of dozens of residents. Medical center officials and the nursing home owners have denied the charges.

Lab results in those cases are pending, Minyard said.

New Orleans homicide detectives will look into at least eight Orleans Parish deaths that resulted from gunshot wounds, Minyard said. Cataldie said one or two of those deaths might have been suicide.

Gathering intelligence on how someone died is difficult in nearly every case because police typically find no witnesses when they locate a corpse, said Capt. Tim Bayard, a narcotics and vice unit commander who has spent weeks in body-recovery efforts and still oversees such an effort in the Lower 9th Ward.

Bayard, who works closely with the contract firm Kenyon International, said bodies found after the storm typically were in an advanced stage of decomposition, in some cases no more than skeletal remains.

He also noted that the fate of some victims may never be known because they floated away with the tide.

"There's a lot of bodies that went out with the current that we'll never find," he said.

Though Bayard and others said most deaths seemed concentrated on the east side of the Industrial Canal, the new state map depicts a city in which almost no section was spared. The Lakeview ZIP code 70124 accounted for between 21 and 30 bodies, for example, and 70115, including riverfront sections of Uptown that didn't flood, had between 11 and 20 bodies, the map shows.

Gruesome scenes

In St. Bernard Parish, where water rose to six feet or more in almost every house, Katrina's trail of death spread from one end of the parish to the other.

An analysis of the locations where bodies were found and discussions with officials about the characteristics of the dead indicate that age and frail health, more than geography, sealed the fate of most of the 123 victims recovered in the parish as of Friday.

The official cause of death is being determined as victims undergo autopsies at the state's St. Gabriel's morgue, but Bertucci said for 99 percent of the victims in St. Bernard, drowning was the likely cause of death. Some, he said, suffered heart attacks, but it's not clear whether they drowned because of their heart condition or suffered the heart attacks as they realized they were drowning.

Although deaths in St. Bernard were widely dispersed, there were some gruesome spots. At St. Rita's Nursing Home near Poydras, 34 elderly patients died inside the home, many drowning in their beds and wheelchairs as they hoped in vain for a rescue. Another body with a feeding tube in it was found weeks later behind the home, and officials suspect it was another patient.

For some households, the losses were overwhelming. Four bodies were recovered the day after the storm at a Fable Drive home in Meraux, though officials would not say if all the victims belonged to the same family.

Although Jefferson Parish handled more than 170 bodies during and after the storm, only 22 have been categorized as Katrina-related deaths, Coroner Robert Treuting said.

Included in that number are three bodies picked up in New Orleans at the request of relatives while Minyard's office was out of commission.

The Jefferson deaths were widely dispersed and divided almost equally between East Jefferson and the West Bank, according to statistics compiled by the coroner's office. Almost a third of Jefferson's Katrina deaths were due to carbon monoxide poisonings. Six people are believed to have died after running generators inside a residence.

Two men drowned in the storm's aftermath, and another two were electrocuted, including a Kansas City man working to restore power in Kenner. A New Orleans teenager waiting to board buses bound for shelters was killed on Causeway Boulevard near Interstate 10 in Metairie after being hit by a car.

Jefferson was spared a higher death toll because the parish didn't take the brunt of the storm or see the worst of the rapid flooding from levee breeches, officials said.

Included in the Jefferson figures are three suicides. Although he acknowledged that people who are suicidal might have taken their lives even if the storm had not occurred, Treuting said Katrina was a stressful event that apparently prompted them to act.

Missing from the Jefferson tally are at least eight bodies found inside the parish but sent to the DMORT team in St. Gabriel. Treuting said they were people who could not be identified and likely were from New Orleans.

"St. Gabriel would be better able to handle identification -- that, and relatives would probably turn there first to look for their loved ones' remains," he said.

. . . . . . .

Coleman Warner can be reached at (504) 826-3311 or cwarner@timespicayune.com. Robert Travis Scott can be reached at (225) 342-4197 or rscott@timespicayune.com. St. Bernard Bureau Chief Manuel Torres and staff writer Michelle Hunter contributed to this story.


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