By Ceci Connolly and Manuel Roig-Franzia
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, October 23, 2005
NEW ORLEANS, Oct. 22 -- Nearly two months after Hurricane Katrina savaged this city, demographers have come to a chilling conclusion: No part of New Orleans was untouched by death. Bodies have been found in every neighborhood in the city, from the pitiably engulfed Lower Ninth Ward to the nouveau riche mansions in Lakeview, from the sodden neighborhoods along the city's Industrial Canal to the elegant Garden District.
The mapping by researchers at Louisiana State University, using preliminary data from the state's temporary morgue in a warehouse 40 miles north of here, gives the first look at the still opaque matter of where people died during Katrina. Information about the dead has only begun to trickle out, delayed by the massive challenges of identifying decayed bodies, by complications related to notifying scattered relatives and by too few forensic experts to perform autopsies.
The city's two worst-hit neighborhoods, the data show, were the Lower Ninth Ward, the predominantly black, working-class community east of the French Quarter, and Gentilly, a fast-gentrifying area where homeownership rates among middle-class blacks had been rising before the storm. Each neighborhood accounted for 31 to 75 deaths, according to the mapping data, which assigned a range of deaths for each region of the city, rather than an exact figure.
More surprising were the high death figures in upscale neighborhoods once considered less vulnerable to flooding deaths because residents had the means to escape, particularly along Lake Pontchartrain in Lakeview, a predominantly white neighborhood where 21 to 30 bodies were recovered on streets where homes routinely sell for $1 million. Nearly all of Lakeview is uninhabitable, and several thousand residents, most relocated to neighboring cities or states, gathered Saturday in a church parking lot to seek answers about a recovery process expected to take years.
The LSU mapping project, which is still in its preliminary stages, eventually will provide critical guidance on how to prepare for future disasters, said state medical examiner Louis Cataldie. For now, however, he is less focused on the numbers. "Each person is important to me," he said Saturday.
Complicating the mapping effort is the fact that 30 percent of the 863 bodies delivered to the St. Gabriel morgue arrived with no information on where they had been found, said Bob Johannessen, spokesman for the state Department of Health and Hospitals.
Still, the university's first effort at chronicling Katrina's death count showed the staggering reach of the storm. For instance, between 11 and 20 bodies have been found in each of the City Park, Xavier University and Garden District neighborhoods. But at least one body, and as many as 10, came from high-ground areas, such as the French Quarter and the city's Central Business District.
The map also shows how far Louisiana has to go in counting its dead, with areas such as Chalmette, in ruined St. Bernard Parish, registering only 11 to 20 deaths when local officials say the toll is likely to reach into the triple digits. Over the past week, a crew of 130 morticians and their assistants were able to identify 26 bodies, bringing the number of deceased who have been released to relatives to 158, out of 1,056 total deaths.
The first 158 represent the victims easiest to identify, Cataldie said, noting in many instances they were individuals with a medical bracelet from a hospital or nursing home.
The early analysis does not include any of the people who perished in medical facilities such as hospitals or nursing homes in part because there is some doubt as to whether some were Katrina victims or died of an illness before the storm. Forty-five bodies, for example, were recovered from Memorial Medical Center, in the 70115 Zip code. But those are not included in the early tally for the city's Garden District because hospital executives have said at least 10 patients died before Katrina hit on Aug. 29.
Cataldie said he hopes to complete 90 autopsies within the next week.
The map is more than an exercise in accounting. Once full statistics are complied, community activists believe the figures could play a significant role in discussions about which neighborhoods are rebuilt -- and which are not -- as well as figure into the calculations being made by displaced residents about whether to return.
Jamie Blackman, a Lower Ninth Ward activist, said anxiety is growing as residents learn more about the number of deaths in her neighborhood. "People are fearful," she said Saturday. "There will be people who say, 'I won't come back. I don't trust the locals, I don't trust the state, I don't trust the federal government.' " The sense of unease, she said, is compounded by a lack of information -- about both the dead, many of whom are yet to be identified, and about the living, out of touch with friends and relatives back home after fleeing to evacuation centers around the country. Blackman has been trying, with no success, to find into which of those categories her childhood friend Helen Tobias fits. "I'm not getting enough answers," she said. "I'm sick about it."