Katrina death toll continues to mount far and wide

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NEW ORLEANS – The first stories of death came quickly and immediately: residents drowning in fetid floodwaters, succumbing in sweltering attics or being swept out to sea.

But state officials say that for weeks after it made landfall Aug. 29, Hurricane Katrina kept claiming Louisiana victims, often in more subtle fashion and often in other states: elderly and ill evacuees too fragile for grueling trips on gridlocked highways, infants stillborn to mothers who were shuttled to other cities when they should have been on bed rest and residents overcome with anxiety by 24-hour television broadcasts of the devastation back home.

Because of a continuing rise in reports of out-of-state deaths, Louisiana’s official Katrina toll jumped 22 percent this week, to 1,577 deaths, when the Department of Health and Hospitals added 281 more victims to the count. Texas alone accounted for 223 deaths of the increase.

And the work is far from finished. Only 32 states, representing 480 deaths, have filed their reports with Louisiana officials.

State Medical Examiner Louis Cataldie said he and his staff are preparing to examine every case to determine whether each death was indeed storm-related. The work will be tedious, but the ultimate goal is to define the mortal scope of Katrina’s tragedy.

“Folks need to know what are the true consequences of a catastrophe,” Cataldie said.

Patricia O’Neil knows.

At 81, her aunt, Rita Parker, had bronchitis and was in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease. But O’Neil and another of Parker’s nieces, Jo Ann Owen, said their aunt was nowhere near gravely ill.

Parker and her husband, Sam, 84, were a social pair who never missed a high school reunion, always had a vacation planned and kept their front yard neatly trimmed.

But after 20-plus hours in a car fleeing Katrina – with stops in Florida, Georgia and finally Oklahoma – Parker was beginning to wear, O’Neil said. Her aunt was glued to television coverage about the storm. Things seemed to worsen when they got the news that two family homes had been destroyed. Parker refused to eat and drink and became lethargic.

She was hospitalized in Oklahoma City on Sept. 4 and died six days later. Doctors said her breathing problems put a strain on her heart.

“I think the travel, the news coverage, the worry about the house … ” O’Neil said, pausing, “It was pretty bad.”

Parker is one of six Louisiana evacuees who reportedly died in Oklahoma between Aug. 27, the Saturday that Katrina began homing in on Louisiana, and Oct. 1. Louisiana health department spokesman Bob Johannessen said the time frame is somewhat arbitrary. Officials established the dates in an effort to define, and find, Katrina’s victims.

To round up the numbers, Louisiana turned to the National Association of Public Health Statistics and Information Systems, which in turn tapped all 50 state health departments for information on evacuee deaths, Johannessen said.

Most of the out-of-state dead reported so far were elderly people. But the ages range from an infant who survived only 45 minutes after birth in Pennsylvania to a 104-year-old woman who died in North Carolina. The vast majority, 82 percent, died of natural causes. Twenty-seven of the deaths were deemed accidental. At least two suicides are included in the official count.

Almost half of the out-of-state deaths occurred in Texas.

That’s where the National Guard airlifted Shirley Richard, 87, after she rode out Katrina at Metairie Manor nursing home. Richard refused to evacuate before the storm, said her sister, Mary Marino.

Marino said she was shocked the second week in September to receive a telephone call from San Antonio informing her that Richard had been hospitalized there. She flew to Texas and spent three days with her sister, until Richard died Sept. 14.

Richard had been ill before the storm with colitis and congestive heart failure. But she was determined to stay alive to comfort Marino, who was still grieving the death of a son a few years ago, Marino said.

“I guess you could say the storm triggered it,” Marino said of her sister’s death.

Dr. Alvin Rouchell, chairman of psychiatry at Ochsner Medical Center, said elderly people typically are less adaptable than younger people to physical and emotional shock. They have less strength to handle the demands of a recovery process after something such as Katrina.

Cataldie said it’s possible that some evacuees had no access to essential prescription medication, and their wait turned fatal. Cataldie said he fielded a call from relatives of one man who committed suicide after he spent days without medication.

Cataldie’s staff will eventually sift through hundreds of death certificates from other states and interview relatives to determine whether to label deaths “Katrina-related.” At stake is the official accounting of the disaster’s aftermath.

But a designation as a Katrina death also could mean burial benefits from the state and federal governments, Cataldie said.

“We want them to be able to take advantage of that,” he said.

Cataldie said the guideline is this question: Had the conditions created by Katrina not existed, would the person have died when he or she did?


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