December 18, 2005
Louisiana's Deadly Storm Took Strong as Well as the Helpless
By SHAILA DEWAN and JANET ROBERTS
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 that 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, but 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 local 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 examined by The Times and almost half the white victims lived in neighborhoods where the average income was below $43,000, the city's overall 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 - nurses, janitors, barbers, merchant marines.
Among them was Althea Lala, 76, who suffered 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 just a skeletal 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, have released causes of death, and Louisiana death certificates are not a matter of 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.
The Times's examination encompassed about 175 of the approximately 360 New Orleans residents so far identified, along with about 60 people who died in the surrounding parishes and about 50 evacuees. One in the group was the victim of a criminal homicide.
"It's ironic that you can survive a storm," but still die, said Velda Smith, who lost her sister-in-law and three teenage nieces to the floodwaters. On the day they drowned, she said, "everything was fine. The sun was shining." Then the Industrial Canal's levee broke, prompting a panicked call by one of her nieces to their father. The girls, Kendra and Kendricka Smooth and Doneika Lewis, were spending the night at their aunt Ersell Smooth's house on Flood Street in the devastated Ninth Ward.
"The girls were hysterical," Ms. Smith said. "The water was rising so fast. Then the phone went dead. They did not know how to swim." By the time their father got to his own front door, the water was already rising in his house. He, his wife and four other children made it to a neighbor's house and were airlifted to safety.
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, shortsighted government policy, and the hardships of poverty, aging and disability.
Some victims became emblematic of the horror in New Orleans and the inefficiency of the government response. There was Vera Smith, whose improvised grave proclaimed, "Here lies Vera. God help us." Ethel Freeman, slumped in her wheelchair under a plaid blanket outside the convention center. Xavier Bowie, a lung cancer patient whose girlfriend cried over his body in the street. Alcede Jackson, who lay on his front porch, in full view, until Sept. 12, and still has not been released by the central morgue. And withered, frail Edgar Hollingsworth, 74, whose rescue more than two weeks after the hurricane provided a rare glimmer of good news. Two days later, he died.
For each of those, hundreds died in obscurity. In the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans, where a deadly wall of water surged down streets and swept houses off their foundations, Karnettia Jacko, 26, slipped from her husband's grasp and sank into the murky water, relatives said. Her mother, 51-year-old Brenda Andrews, grabbed for her daughter and fell in as well. As the rest of the family watched from the roof, their bodies bobbed to the surface.
In Lakeview, Yvette Pereira, 54, died in her attic hours after the Coast Guard called her cellphone to say they were in the neighborhood but could not locate the house. An hour later, her 11-year-old daughter, Alexandra, who had been by Ms. Pereira's side for two days, was rescued.
Vanessa Pereira, Alexandra's grown sister and, now, her caretaker, had been evacuated but used her cellphone to stay in contact with her mother during the ordeal and made dozens of calls to find help. "I was just telling them stuff like, 'She's having a heart attack. She's with an 11-year-old child, you can't let this happen,' " Vanessa Pereira said. "The rescue people that were talking to me were crying."
Ms. Pereira said she lost more than her mother and her home - she lost her "false sense of protection," the notion that the government would be there to help in a crisis.
While the state's list of victims shows that a vast majority died alone, 31 families in the Times study lost more than one member. Anna Bonono, 85 and sick with cancer, died with her 80-year-old brother and caretaker, Luke Bonono. Their house was destroyed. "The house had been the family home for years," Rosalie Bonono, a niece, said. "It's like this family has been erased because of one hurricane."
Water - rising as fast as a foot every 10 minutes - overtook many who thought the worst had passed. In St. Bernard Parish, just east of the city, Joan Emerson, 57, was on the phone with her son at midmorning on Monday when he heard her screaming, then the phone went dead, a family friend said. Her body was found 18 days later.
In Arabi, the St. Bernard town adjacent to the Lower Ninth Ward, the water came so fast that Kenneth Young did not have time to save his wife of 56 years, Gloria, who was partly paralyzed and bedridden, relatives said. He stayed with her until the last possible moment, watching her drown before he narrowly escaped to the attic, where the couple's daughter waited.
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 - although there could be many more such victims, because the Times study was less likely to include the homeless or those with no driver's license or other official documents. 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, had two amputated legs, but still 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."
They survived the storm but were later taken by helicopter to the airport, where officials separated a badly dehydrated Ms. Cherrie from her son, leaving her to die alone, he said. Mr. Cherrie said if the levees had not broken, she would have survived. "That's malfeasance," he said.
For many, routine maladies turned fatal. Melvin Alexie Jr., 47, developed a mastoid infection in his ear after the storm. His father took him to Charity Hospital, which he said was too overwhelmed to help. A trip to a Federal Emergency Management Agency center proved fruitless as well, and Mr. Alexie died on Sept. 13 in Gretna, a New Orleans suburb. Edward Starks, 58, ran out of insulin at the convention center, his aunt, Dorothy Guy, said.
For others, help simply came too late, according to relatives. Earl Balthazar, 72, slipped out of his life jacket and drowned just as help arrived. Eunice Breaux, who suffered from multiple sclerosis, was trapped with 15 other people on the third floor of a home. Five days after the storm, a boat finally came and dropped them off on a levee, where Ms. Breaux, 76, died. Her death certificate says she drowned, a finding her family disputes.
Many family members said that although their older relatives were nearing the end of their lives, they had the right to peaceful, dignified deaths.
Louis Orduna Sr., a decorated World War II veteran, was 90 but in great shape, said his nephew, Jack Bunn. "His son begged him to get out," Mr. Bunn said. "He refused to leave. He felt he'd be safe there - he had no idea."
The water was up to his roof within nine minutes of the levee break.
"Every tooth in his head, every hair on his head was still there," Mr. Bunn said. "To go like that, drowning like a rat, it's terrible. It's not the way an individual like that was supposed to go."
Shaila Dewan reported from New Orleans for this article, and Janet Roberts from New York. Reporting for this article was contributed by Lara Coger, Micah Cohen, Brenda Goodman, Lily Koppel and Lee Roberts. Research was provided by Donna Anderson, Jack Begg, Nick Bhasin, Happy Blitt, Alain Delaqu�ri�re, Sandra Jamison, Toby Lyles, Jack Styczynski, Carolyn Wilder and Margot Williams