August 29, 2009

In memory of the 1,577 citizens of Louisiana who lost their lives 4 years ago, and possibly hundreds more citizens of the United States of America, that perished in Katrina – this must never happen again…

Study of Hurricane Katrina’s dead show most were old, lived near levee breaches
by Mark Schleifstein, The Times-Picayune
Thursday August 27, 2009, 8:09 PM
Chris Granger / The Times-PicayuneThirty-one residents of St. Rita’s Nursing Home in St. Bernard were victims of Hurricane Katrina. Most of them drowned.

Four years later, researchers still count New Orleans’ Katrina dead, parsing them into categories, puzzling over exactly how each of the more than 1,400 victims perished — and what might be done to protect them the next time a big one rolls in off the Gulf.

Their findings, though incomplete, jibe with common sense. The dead were overwhelmingly old. Most lived near the levee breaches in the 9th Ward and Lakeview. About two-thirds either drowned or died from illness or injury brought on by being trapped in houses surrounded by water.

The rest died from maladies or injuries suffered in or exacerbated by an arduous evacuation — or an inability to evacuate quickly enough, including many who died in local hospitals that lost power and other life-sustaining services. Neither race nor gender made anyone more likely to die, only a failure to evacuate and a location near a levee breach.

Emergency preparedness experts and government officials say the data reinforces the dire need for continuous improvement in the government’s evacuation apparatus, particularly for the area’s most frail, poor and often hardest-to-motivate residents.

Ultimately, that strategy may be replaced by the construction of a fortress at home: a hurricane-resistant shelter that city officials want the federal government to finance. Some believe that tack could be cheaper, safer and easier for the city’s most vulnerable.

“The evacuations probably cost us around $100 million last year, ” said New Orleans Emergency Preparedness Director Jerry Sneed, referring to federal and state money that paid for buses, trucks and Amtrak trains used to move people and their pets to faraway shelters, also government-financed.

“Down the road somewhere, what we need to do is not evacuate out of the area but build a shelter than can hold our people, especially those that can’t afford multiple evacuations, ” Sneed said.

He has already discussed the idea with Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano but believes it might take another busy hurricane season to force the federal government’s hand. At some point, Washington would be compelled to calculate the costs of federally financed evacuation and compare them to the shelter option, he said. But whatever was built would have to be restricted to those unable to evacuate, he said.

The new details of 2005 deaths emerged in the most comprehensive report to date of the still-murky picture of Katrina’s deadly impact. The study of Katrina deaths in the May issue of the scientific journal Risk Assessment was written by Sebastiaan Jonkman and Bob Maaskant, researchers at Delft University in the Netherlands, and Ezra Boyd and Marc Levitan, researchers at Louisiana State University.

But they reinforce warnings being issued by the Army Corps of Engineers and local emergency planners that New Orleans-area residents must evacuate for major hurricanes, even after improvements to the area’s levee system are complete in 2011.

The improved levee system is designed to reduce the risk of flooding caused by storm surges created by hurricanes with a 1 percent chance of occurring in any year, also known as a 100-year storm.

The corps has taken pains since the disaster to warn residents that even improved levees will not protect everyone from the strongest storms, changing its parlance from “protection” to “risk reduction.”

“Safety is a word you shouldn’t use anymore, ” said Ed Link, a University of Maryland researcher. “The world is risky. You live in a risky place . . . There’s no way any organization like the corps can guarantee someone’s safety.”

Link estimates the risk faced by New Orleans, even after the 100-year system, at a potential 100 deaths a year. That doesn’t mean every year but rather that “over the next 1,000 years, you could have some big events that would average out to be something like that.”

New Orleans residents’ experience with back-to-back evacuations for Hurricanes Gustav and Ike last year pointed out another unexpected aspect of risk: that residents might be less likely to evacuate, or more likely to feel they can’t afford to leave, when faced with several hurricanes in the same season.

The study of Katrina deaths provides a grim reminder of the hazards of staying for a dangerous storm. The authors concentrated on 1,100 victims in New Orleans and St. Bernard Parish. They found that nearly 85 percent were older than 51, 60 percent older than 65 and almost half were older than 75, the report said.

That compares to pre-Katrina population statistics showing only 25 percent of the two parishes’ residents were older than 50, 12 percent were older than 65 and only 6 percent were older than 75.

The Katrina statistics were similar to studies of deaths during a catastrophic 1953 flood that overwhelmed levees in the Netherlands.

Gender apparently played little role in the Katrina deaths, with 50.6 of the victims male and 49.3 percent female, compared with the pre-Katrina population of 47.1 percent male and 52.9 percent female.

The statistics “do not directly support claims that African-Americans were more likely to become fatalities, ” as some believed in the storm’s aftermath, the study said. A slightly smaller percentage of African-American residents died in comparison to the pre-Katrina population numbers for the neighborhoods in Orleans and St. Bernard parishes that the study examined.

Of the 818 fatalities for which race is listed, 55 percent were African-American, compared to 40 percent white, 2 percent Hispanic and 1 percent Asian-Pacific. There were 35 victims in the deaths studied for whom race was unknown.

Cause of death data was unavailable for 31 percent of Louisiana fatalities. For the 771 victims for which detailed cause of death information was available, 81 percent occurred in flooded areas, including 106 victims whose bodies were recovered from public shelters or hospitals, which the study said indicated they were not directly related to the impact of floodwaters.

For the 518 remaining water-related fatalities, which represent 67 percent of victims for whom information was available, the most likely causes of death include drowning and physical trauma from debris or building collapses.

Many of the deaths occurred in areas near large breaches, such as the Lower 9th Ward, or in areas where deep water came in. Included in this total were 31 residents of St. Rita’s Nursing Home in St. Bernard, most of whom drowned. Floodwater-related diseases and exposure to toxic materials were not found to cause many deaths, the report said.

More than 20 others “were recovered from residences inside the flooded areas from attics or floors that were not flooded, ” the study said. Those people died from such conditions as dehydration, heat stroke, heart attack, stroke or a lack of needed medical supplies.

~ by maringouin on Saturday, August 29, 2009.

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