The death toll in Louisiana from Hurricane Katrina now stands at 423. While it will no doubt rise, it now appears that it will not approach one-tenth of the estimate that was first given by the feckless Mayor of New Orleans, and repeated by other politicians and journalists. Instead, it seems that the casualties from Katrina will be of the same order of magnitude as were caused by other large hurricanes, most of which struck much less vulnerable areas, e.g., the New England hurricane of 1938 (700 deaths), Hurricane Camille (256 deaths), the March 1993 hurricane/storm across the eastern seaboard (270 deaths), the 1935 Labor Day hurricane (423 deaths); Hurricane Agnes (129 deaths); and so on.
It is becoming clear that, along with the unique vulnerability of the City of New Orleans, the chief reason why the casualties from Katrina were as high as they are is a grotesque level of negligence on the part of specific individuals. Thus today’s indictment of the owners of St. Rita’s nursing home.
The story of St. Rita’s is an appalling one. The bodies of 34 residents and staff were discovered on the premises when the flood waters receded. There have been many prior reports on St. Rita’s, for example this one from the Times-Picayune and this one from the New York Times. Astonishingly, the local authorities begged the owners of St. Rita’s to evacuate their patients and staff before the hurricane arrived. But the owners declined:
Less than 24 hours before Hurricane Katrina began ravaging St. Bernard Parish with 140 mph winds and a 20-foot storm surge, Coroner Bryan Bertucci made an urgent call to the owner of St. Rita’s Nursing Home near Poydras.
“I told her I had two buses and two drivers who could evacuate all 70 of her residents and take them anywhere she wanted to go,” he said.
But Mabel Mangano refused the offer. “She told me, ‘I have five nurses and a generator, and we’re going to stay here,'” Bertucci said.
It turned out to be a tragic decision.
On Wednesday, nine days after the storm had passed, Bertucci watched as a dozen workers from a federal agency that specializes in handling mass casualties began the gruesome task of removing about 30 decomposing bodies from the still-flooded nursing home.
Other nursing homes in the area evacuated without incident and without any loss of life.
More indictments could follow. Forty-five bodies were found yesterday in a New Orleans hospital; it was unclear how many were already dead before the emergency struck and were awaiting transport to a morgue, and how many died when they were apparently left behind in a “hasty evacuation.” With a mandatory evacuation order in place well before Katrina struck, how is it possible that local hospitals did not obey, or that local officials failed to enforce the evacuation order even as to such vulnerable individuals–in this case, people who died, according to news accounts, not from drowning but from inattention?
These two incidents together account for nearly 20% of the known deaths so far. It is hard to see how anyone could blame them on FEMA, President Bush, or anyone other than the specific individuals and local authorities involved. More such cases of wanton negligence may yet be discovered, although not, one hopes, with similar numbers of casualties.
It seems increasingly likely that when the history of Hurricane Katrina is written, the conclusion will be that it is a wonder that such a powerful storm, striking a uniquely vulnerable area, did not kill more people, considering the gross negligence and sometimes illegal conduct of many individuals and local government officials during the days that preceded and immediately followed the hurricane.