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Katrina’s death toll doesn’t include all victims

Even as the official death toll from Hurricane Katrina rises when more bodies are found in once-flooded homes, the real total may never be known. Victims are scattered far and wide, and the links of their deaths to the storm are not necessarily obvious.
Brenda Johnson, niece of blues great Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, and his long-time manager Jim Bateman say goodbye to the Grammy-award winning musician at Mount Calvary Baptist Church in Orange, Texas, in this Sept. 17 file photo. Jennifer Reynolds / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Singer Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown was 81 and already seriously ill when he fled the area ahead of Hurricane Katrina, and associates think the stress of evacuating and the heartbreak of losing his home hastened his death.

Still, the master of blues, country, jazz and Cajun music isn’t part of Katrina’s official death toll of 1,323 people in Louisiana, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama and Georgia.

Neither is 13-month-old Destiny McNeese, who rolled onto her stomach and suffocated on an air mattress after her family fled from Kentwood to Kentucky.

Nor is a 56-year-old New Orleans woman who had a stroke two days after she was bused from the infamous storm refugee shelter in the Superdome to Texas.

Even as the official toll continues to rise when more bodies are found in once-flooded homes, the real total may never be known.

The victims are scattered far and wide, and the connections of their deaths to the storm are not necessarily obvious.

Different definitions of storm death
Officially, as of Sunday, the states counted 1,075 deaths in Louisiana, 230 in Mississippi, 14 in Florida and two each in Georgia and Alabama. But the states have different definitions for storm-related deaths. For example, Louisiana counts evacuee deaths from heart attacks or strokes before Oct. 1 as storm deaths, but Georgia doesn’t.

Of the 19 evacuees who died in Georgia before Oct. 1, one was shot and the others had serious medical problems when they arrived, said Tod Rose of the Georgia Department of Human Resources. He could not reveal causes of deaths but by that state’s standard none was a victim of Katrina.

The Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals is getting copies of evacuees’ death certificates from other states and reviewing them to see which deaths likely were caused or hastened by the Aug. 29 storm.

Destiny's fate
Deputy Coroner Jesse Paulley of the Jefferson County Coroner’s Office in Louisville, Ky., knew of only one related death: Destiny’s, on Sept. 13.

The toddler had been tightly wrapped in a blanket and propped, sitting up, against a pillow on a half-inflated air mattress in the apartment where her mother, the mother’s boyfriend and four other members of his family were staying. She was left alone and the mattress was so soft she couldn’t raise her face after she turned over. No charges were filed, Paulley said.

The storm didn’t kill Destiny directly. But if she hadn’t been an evacuee she would have been safe in her crib at home instead of on that air mattress.

Gatemouth Brown had been fighting lung cancer for a year before his death Sept. 10 in Orange, Texas. He also had emphysema and heart problems.

He died shortly after his release from a hospital following an emergency procedure to clear a blockage near his heart, said Brown’s agent, Lance Cowan. But Cowan is sure that Brown’s death was hastened by the storm.

“He lost everything except his Firebird guitar and a fiddle,” Cowan said. “His home there in Slidell was full of memorabilia he’d collected from more than 50 years of being a musician.”

Days at the Superdome
Clarise M. Horn, 56, died of a stroke in Fort Worth, Texas, where she was taken after five days in the Superdome, said daughter Joycelyn M. Brumfield. After Horn had a stroke six months ago, her daughter said, her doctors said another stroke would kill her.

“During the storm in the Superdome, she was already fragile,” Brumfield said. “No medicine, dehydration — it was just awful.”

Brumfield said her arm was wrenched from her mother’s while buses were loaded at the Superdome. She and other family members wound up on a bus to Kansas City; her mother went to Texas. A day or two later, she learned her mother was dead.