Data analysis offers look at victims of Katrina

The analysis used data from the Centers for Disease
Control and Prevention.


Many of Hurricane Katrina’s victims were senior citizens who became trapped by floodwaters and drowned in their homes, according to a newly released accounting of the 2005 storm.

The average age for men who died in the northern Gulf Coast hurricane was 64 years old, according to a Scripps Howard News Service analysis of data recently released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Female victims were older, averaging 71. That’s more than 23 years older than the average age of women who died during the 2004 Atlantic hurricane season and 13 years older than women who died in other 2005 storm events.

In all, about 60 percent of the Katrina victims listed in the database were 65 years old or older. The total death toll for senior citizens was 493.

The deaths largely targeted a narrow portion of the population. Only about 12 percent of the residents of New Orleans and Louisiana were 65 years old or older.

The Scripps analysis, the first to use the CDC data, provides a grim reminder of how national, state and local officials were ill prepared to protect some of the most vulnerable people, said professors and aging advocates who are studying the hurricane.

“They failed us,” said Charles Tubre, systems advocate for the New Orleans Advocacy Center, a nonprofit group that protects the rights of the elderly and disabled. “How tragic.”

Kevin Stephens, director of the New Orleans Health Department, said the city tried to evacuate its elderly by giving them numbers to call for assistance before the storm hit. Many chose to ride out the hurricane because they didn’t foresee the devastation that would follow, he said.

The CDC database attributes more than 800 deaths to Hurricane Katrina. The number is less than half of the 1,833 people who the National Hurricane Center said died as a result of the Category 3 storm, which flooded New Orleans after levees bordering Lake Pontchartrain broke Aug. 30, 2005. The hurricane center’s data includes deaths directly and indirectly attributed to Katrina, whereas the CDC’s data includes only those deaths directly related to the hurricane, said CDC spokeswoman Bernadette Burden.

The data, however, provide an insight into who died and how.

Drowning claimed 239 of the elderly victims, while 185 died in part from physical injuries, such as fractures or head wounds. Nearly 200 died in part from pre-existing health problems, such as Parkinson’s disease or a heart attack, and 17 died from excessive heat, pneumonia, traumatic shock and other effects of the elements.

On the other hand, only four children younger than 10 years old were listed in the database, which gave multiple causes of death for many victims.

Howard Rodgers, executive director of the New Orleans-based Council on Aging, cited several reasons for the elderly toll. Many seniors had survived previous hurricanes and chose not to evacuate during Katrina, he said. Others did not have the money, means or social connections to leave.

Terry Ebbert, director of New Orleans Homeland Security, said the elderly who remained were often unable to swim or climb onto their roofs. Medication problems and severe stress also took a toll.

Rodgers said those who stayed could have been helped more. He said government officials did not evacuate all of the elderly who could not leave on their own and failed to locate older residents — who often needed aid the most — immediately after the storm.

Stephens said the city, with media alerts, buses and 20 to 30 ambulances at its disposal, did its best to evacuate the elderly. But he said such an evacuation is a community effort among city officials, other emergency workers and residents themselves.

Many were elderly, according to the data.

Most seniors — 383, according to the CDC database — died at home, where rushing water likely injured or trapped them before they drowned, experts said. Sixty-four died in a hospital, and 59 died in a nursing home.

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