Still Counting Katrina's Dead

The Katrina dead. Three years later and we can still see the drowned rooftops, the hospital staffs begging for evacuations, the lines of wheel-chaired sick fading before our eyes. Some of us remember this because we saw it on TV. Some of us remember this because we were there. No matter our vantage points, we should all be united in our desire that the dead be duly counted.

In a recent piece in Baton Rouge's The Advocate, journalist Allen Johnson gives the latest update on state and local efforts to create an accurate accounting of the Katrina death toll. He focuses on the work of John C. Mutter, a professor of seismology at Columbia University's Earth Institute and an expert on the impact of disasters on national economies, who is working to measure the full impact of Hurricane Katrina.

Dr. Mutter defines "full impact" as "the entire awful landscape of death, the grief it causes, and the loss of spirit as well as the losses to the informal as well as the formal economy." While all of this not obviously quantifiable, Mutter believes that the more we know about the circumstances of individual deaths, the better prepared we will be to prevent similar deaths in the future.

I know Dr. Mutter through my own Katrina oral history work and have followed intently his efforts to go beyond the purviews of state officialdom and create the most complete list possible of Katrina deceased. In doing so, he has created the Hurricane Katrina Deceased Victims List . While he receives name-redacted information from state agencies, he also asks family members and friends of the deceased to submit directly to the list, given that many deaths may not be officially recorded in Louisiana or Mississippi records, and that families may wish to have the deaths publicly recognized. As for indirect deaths, he allows submitters to use their judgment as to whether they felt their loved one's death was hastened by Katrina and its aftermath.

In Louisiana, the direct dead count now stands at 902, according to state epidemiologist Raoult C. Ratard. In Mississippi, the number is 223, according to Sam L. Howell, director of the Mississippi Crime Laboratory. The Louisiana number includes out-of-state deaths, but only if the out-of-state coroners notified Louisiana, as most were doing for up to a month after the storm.

"Direct" deaths are attributable to the storm and its immediate aftermath. "Indirect" deaths, such as suicide, loss of continuity of health care and profound heartbreak are causes whose victims are unlikely to be counted by state coroners as "Katrina-related." Out-of-state deaths are most likely under-reported, too. There is also the difficult task of accounting for undocumented populations. And of course, there are the stories of killings during those initial dark days that must be either documented or dispelled -- a task that is not Mr. Mutter's, surely, but one that only investigative reporters seem interested in pursuing.

While no one is guaranteed an extra day's life on this earth, there are certainly deaths that appear to be exacerbated, if not outright caused by Katrina-related factors. Researchers can later subdivide the groups by causation; in the meantime, Dr. Mutter strives to create the most comprehensive list possible. If you know someone who should be included on this list, or if you have any questions or information to share, you may contact Dr. Mutter at the address below:

Dr. John C. Mutter
Hurricane Katrina Deceased Victims List
The Earth Institute at Columbia University
405 Low Library
Columbia University in the City of New York
535 W. 116th St. New York, 10027

Arguably, this is the sort of work that could be sponsored by an 8/29 Commission if one actually existed. But it doesn't. I'm glad and grateful that Dr. Mutter has taken it upon himself to take the lead.