Interviews shed light on Katrina-related deaths

December 18, 2005|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

NEW ORLEANS -- More than 100 of them drowned. Sixteen died trapped in attics. More than 40 died of heart failure or respiratory problems, including running out of oxygen. At least 65 died because help - shelter, water or a simple dose of insulin - came too late.

A study by The New York Times of more than 260 Louisianans who died during Hurricane Katrina or its aftermath found almost all survived the height of the storm but died in the chaos and flooding that followed.

Of those who failed to heed evacuation orders, many were offered a ride or could have driven themselves out of danger - a finding that contrasts with earlier reports that victims were trapped by a lack of transportation. Most victims were 65 or older. Of those below that age, more than a quarter were ill or disabled.

The results are not necessarily representative of the 1,100 people who died in the storm-ravaged part of the state. The 268 deaths examined by The Times were not chosen through a scientific or random sample but rather were selected on the basis of which family members could be reached, and which names had been released by state officials.

Nonetheless, the study represents the most comprehensive picture to date of the Louisiana victims of Hurricane Katrina and the subsequent levee failures. The Times conducted more than 200 interviews with relatives, neighbors and friends of the victims, and culled information from area coroners and medical examiners, census data, obituaries and news articles.

The interviews add narrative and nuance to what has been a largely anonymous or purely statistical casualty list. Relatives were able to explain that what might have been listed as a simple drowning was really a tragic end to a rescue, or that medical care just a few minutes earlier might have meant the difference between life and death.

In New Orleans, almost three-quarters of the black victims and almost half the white victims reviewed by The Times lived in neighborhoods where the average income was below $43,000, the city's average. In New Orleans, the median income for whites is almost twice what it is for blacks. Many, if not most, were Louisiana natives, and virtually all were members of the working class - janitors, barbers, merchant marines.

Among them was Althea Lala, 76, who had a heart attack while trying to saw through her roof.

Prosper Louis Flint, blind, diabetic and dehydrated, was one of at least 19 people who died in the hot sun on Interstate 10, according to the state health department, waiting for help to come.

Donise Marie Davis, 28, fell to her death from the rope of a rescue helicopter.

Todd Lopez, 42, pushed his girlfriend's family into an attic before the water overtook him.

Paul Haynes, 78, told his wife, "Marge, don't worry about me. I know how to survive."

State officials have released the names of only 512 victims - fewer than half the estimated deaths in the state - and have provided a sketchy demographic breakdown, showing that most were 65 or older, about half were black and about half were female. Despite repeated requests, neither state officials nor the coroner of Orleans Parish, where the bulk of the deaths occurred, has released causes of death, and Louisiana death certificates are not public record.

More than 60 families told The Times that they still did not know how, or in some cases even where, their loved ones perished. As a result, a full portrait remains impossible.

Because of bodies that washed away or have not yet been found, a full accounting of the dead may not be available for months or even years. But more than 1,400 victims from along the Gulf Coast have been counted, including some who evacuated and whose deaths may later be determined to be unrelated to the storm.

Bodies were found floating alongside refrigerators, wedged under furniture, lashed to telephone poles or covered by makeshift shrouds. School buses arrived at shelters with some of their passengers already dead. The deaths tell of individual stubbornness, helplessness and selflessness; the hardships of poverty, aging and disability; and the effects of government policy.

Some victims became emblematic of the horror in New Orleans and the inefficiency of the government response: Vera Smith's improvised grave proclaimed, "Here lies Vera. God help us."

Of the 126 people who were not in a nursing home or hospital, yet did not evacuate, only 25 families said transportation was an issue. Others said the victims refused to leave because they had survived earlier hurricanes, were worried about their property or pets, or were simply obstinate. At least one victim tried to leave town, got stuck in traffic, and returned home.

Clarence Fleming, 64, who had two amputated legs, told each of his family members he was riding with someone else and stayed in his home in the Lakeview section of New Orleans. Hannah Polmer said her 64-year-old mother, Rachel Polmer, simply felt safest in her own home. "Elderly syndrome," the daughter called it.

Not including hospital patients or nursing home residents, two-thirds of those who did not leave were over 60. Thirty were ill or disabled.

Many said that mandatory evacuation orders came too late, or that leaving, even with transportation, was not a simple matter for older residents. LeShawn Hains could not find a special-needs shelter for her mother, Gilda, who was on oxygen and had heart and lung trouble.

Eddie Cherrie Jr. stayed behind with his mother, Onelia, who relied on a walker and blood pressure medication.

"It's true nothing stopped us from leaving," he said. "But also, it's not that easy to leave with a 91-year-old woman."

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