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Still Missing

The Futile Search for a Hard Number

By Rocky Lopes
Sunday, January 9, 2005; Page B01

It's the disaster we'll remember for a lifetime. Already, most of us outside Florida have forgotten Hurricane What's-Its-Name and its three followers, which devastated the state late last summer. Until reminded of it recently, how many remembered the deadly earthquake in the Iranian city of Bam just a year ago? But I'll wager that 5, 10, 15 years from now, the single word "tsunami" will trigger in any who hear it a near-total recall of the fearful events of Dec. 26, 2004.

That's because the scale of death in that catastrophe, occurring without warning and in a matter of minutes, and striking so many nations, has catapulted it into a class of its own. In my experience, the single factor that most underscores the significance of any disaster is the number of lives it takes. News reports of constantly changing, rapidly rising numbers in South Asia have made the deaths hit home, and our psyche is responding to the further suffering we know these lost lives will cause.


Body count: The job of identifying victims will end at some point, but declaring a definitive death toll may be impossible. (David Longstreath -- AP)

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That's why we have such a deep-seated need to know how many people died in South Asia. That's why relatives of the victims search so desperately for information about what precisely happened to their loved ones. But adding to the grim tragedy is the one certainty that remains in the tsunami's wake: We will never know with absolute certainty how many died, or just what happened to the missing. All we will have is a gross estimate of the death toll -- nearly 150,000 as I write -- which will continue to change for many months to come.

How do you count the dead when so many of them may never be found? This is the dilemma facing those trying to gauge the true scope of the tsunami's destruction. Tallying the victims, matching names and bodies, tracking the missing and trying to pinpoint their fate is difficult after any disaster. But it's magnified in this instance by a number of factors.

First is the absence of any solid population count to start with. Not all countries have a formal and detailed census system like ours in the West. Our government provides population data to very specific levels, and we're accustomed to the idea that each individual has an established identity that can be tracked through driver's licenses, credit cards and so on. This is not the case in more than half of the tsunami-affected countries, where governments have difficulty reporting the number of people who were lost when they don't have reliable data on who was there in the first place. Many of the residents were subsistence fishermen and farmers unlikely to be counted by census-takers.

You can count bodies, of course, but many tsunami victims, swept out to sea, will never be found. Instead, investigators must painstakingly interview survivors to learn who is missing and whether there were any eyewitnesses to these individuals' fates. For missing does not necessarily equal dead. If you knew that someone was in a specific area affected by a disaster, and if you've tried to but can't reach that person, it's easy to draw a conclusion that the person was killed. But until a body can be found, or a reliable witness can report what happened to the individual, you can't be sure.

As data analysis specialist Patrick Ball told NPR last week, what we're counting in this case are "memories rather than bodies. . . . you're depending on people's memories, on the collective memory about who isn't there anymore." Yet we may never even be able to collect all the necessary memories to discover all who are missing. The tsunami's scope was so incredible -- entire families and villages were wiped out, and there may not in some cases be anyone left to report missing people. And if some of the bodies are never found -- not all bodies washed out to sea drift back to shore -- then the deaths will never be recorded. That's why some speculate that the final tsunami death toll could be artificially low.

Ironically, it's likely that in the end there will be a more accurate count of foreign visitors who were killed than of natives, though it will take time. Tourists and temporary workers who enter a country legally are tracked at the port of entry by immigration officials. There are no records of where they go once in the country, but we're learning about the number of foreigners who were in the affected areas through credit card transactions, hotel registrations, transportation rentals and relatives or friends who have been calling their embassies in the affected countries to report missing loved ones.

Some of those reported as missing, though, may not actually be. Many may have been in one of the devastated countries, but nowhere near the areas hit by the tsunami. Sometimes, more than one person will report the same individual missing, who will then be listed multiple times. The State Department initially received thousands of calls about the whereabouts of Americans. It has now whittled that list down to fewer than 2,000 names still not accounted for, but Secretary of State Colin Powell last week downplayed fears that American casualties would be as high as those of some European countries. And the Europeans will gradually determine who among their missing truly is gone. Eventually, even if bodies don't turn up, officials will likely be able to determine whether they can be presumed dead if there is no further activity on their credit cards and passports.

Another complicating factor is the sheer number of countries involved. The tsunami directly impacted 12 nations, but each one is reporting its own data. There's no single organization in the world that collects and reports casualty figures after a disaster. International organizations such as the United Nations, the World Health Organization and the International Federation of the Red Cross rely on individual country reports to arrive at estimates of the dead and missing. Depending on the timing of the report, different agencies will report different numbers, so the death toll figures may vary considerably, as they did in the early hours and days after the catastrophe.

What's more, each country has different methods for reporting casualties. Some countries will report counts of both the dead and those missing, but will not count as dead someone reported missing until they find a body or get some alternate confirmation of the person's fate. Other countries use more generalized methods to count casualties. Thailand and Indonesia are using estimates of village populations from previous informal census figures and subtracting the number of estimated survivors to arrive at an estimate of the deaths. Indonesia is also estimating the number of bodies in mass graves and multiplying by the number of mass grave sites. This is why you may get more precise numbers from India and Sri Lanka, which report only confirmed deaths, but rounded-off numbers from other countries.

Then there's the problem of official and unofficial sources of data, which can sow confusion and anxiety. This was the case here at home after Sept. 11, 2001. Immediately after the attacks, media reports indicated that there could have been more than 10,000 people killed in the World Trade Center, based on the numbers who worked there. The government issued no casualty numbers until deaths could actually be confirmed. When they were, the initial estimates were found to be too high.

That was a blessing, but often, the official and unofficial numbers can't be reconciled. This was true, for example, after the Dec. 26, 2003, earthquake in Bam, Iran. Initial death estimates from the local governor's office exceeded 43,000. But final government tallies released in March 2004, based on a post-event census, indicated an official death count of 26,271. The government statisticians thought some of the dead had been counted twice. Survivors and relief groups in Bam, however, are still doubtful of the final tally. Survivors believe that more people died than death certificates were issued. We will see the same thing happen with the casualty results from the Asian tsunami -- official reports will be different from survivors' stories.

What's difficult for people to accept is that information collection after any disaster anywhere, but particularly in less developed countries, takes time, and that information changes rapidly. In an age of instant communication, we expect "breaking news" when major events happen. But after the tsunami, many areas were cut off from communication -- no phones, radios or satellite links. With no communications, governments just didn't know how many people were affected. Emergency workers worry more about areas we don't hear from right after a disaster than the areas we do. In this case, the adage "no news is good news" does not apply!

Once officials knew that communications were disrupted, the only way to know how many people had been killed or injured was to inspect the affected areas. It took hours to get to some areas near major cities, and days to get to others, where roads had been destroyed and the only way to get there was by boat or aircraft. Once searchers arrived and established communications, they sent reports, including initial estimates of missing and dead people. Even more than a week later, some remote areas had not been reached. Just last Friday, Indonesian rescue workers found 7,000 more bodies in an area that had been cut off by the tsunami's waters. As more survivors are interviewed, searchers will update their reports.

Every day still, the numbers change, and they will keep doing so. Now, in addition to the direct deaths caused by the tsunami, there are indirect deaths to consider -- those due to heart attack, trauma, injury, water-borne or communicable disease, all triggered by the event. And again, different countries will count these deaths differently. This is often the case. There are still varying reports, for instance, on the number of people killed by the hurricanes that struck Florida last year. If you search the Web, you'll see reports that count people who died of carbon monoxide poisoning as hurricane victims, when in fact they died because they had used a portable generator improperly. How deaths are tallied, and how long after the event they are tallied, affects the final figures.

And the figures affect us. They leave a sense of loss and waste, a gnawing feeling of impotence and a stark, and haunting, realization:

Every life counts. But sometimes, tragically, not every life lost can be counted.

Author's e-mail: rockylopes@lycos.com

Rocky Lopes, former manager of disaster education with the American Red Cross, has more than 25 years of experience in the field of disaster preparedness and response. He is now an independent consultant specializing in public education, training and outreach.


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