Death Toll Unclear; May Be Lower Than Feared

A Texas National Guardsman and his unit patrol New Orleans for survivors.

A Texas National Guardsman and his unit patrol New Orleans in search of hurricane survivors. Andrea Hsu, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Andrea Hsu, NPR

Nearly two weeks after Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast, there is no clear idea of the death toll. An emergency official said Saturday that earlier fears of as many as 10,000 deaths will likely prove wrong. But the process of collecting, identifying and counting bodies is a slow one.

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Debbie Elliott.

Nearly two weeks after Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast, the nation has no clear idea of the death toll from the disaster. At one point, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin warned that as many as 10,000 people may have died in that city alone. Today the director of Homeland Security for New Orleans says initial sweeps of homes have turned up fewer casualties than expected. We'll devote much of our broadcast this evening to the aftermath of Katrina, and we'll look at emergency preparedness in another city. But we begin with the grimmest aspect of this story: the retrieval of the dead. We have NPR's Martin Kaste on the line from New Orleans.

Hello, Martin.

MARTIN KASTE reporting:

Hello.

ELLIOTT: Tell us what's happening now with the search for the dead.

KASTE: Well, as you said, they're beginning a more systematic search for the human remains that are now appearing, as the waters recede, especially in eastern New Orleans, in places like St. Bernard's Parish. These are the areas that were under the deepest water. Now as that water goes back, they're starting to go to some of those homes in a gridlike fashion to check to see if there are remains there. When they do, they locate them but they leave that to federal teams to actually dispose of those remains.

The first bodies that have been removed in the last day or so, though, have been the most notorious--maybe `publicized' would be the word--the bodies that were visible for days on end here in downtown New Orleans, areas that had never been flooded. Those have now been removed and with quite a bit of hubbub with 15-car caravans, including ambulances from out of state, which then removed those remains. Those are transferred to refrigerated trucks from FEMA, and those are moved out to morgue sites outside the city.

ELLIOTT: Is there a sense of why it takes so many vehicles to do that job?

KASTE: They don't talk to us very much about this process. They have a firm policy of no reporters near the actual disposal of the remains, even though the remains themselves before the arrival of these teams have been too accessible. They don't tell us why, but the visibility of the disposal of these particularly well-known remains is hard to miss.

ELLIOTT: What about the clean-up? What is the city looking like now?

KASTE: Tiny parts of the city that weren't flooded, especially downtown here on Canal Street, which is where the media are camped out, where the headquarters for most of the law enforcement, for New Orleans Police Department, for other agencies is, this area has started to get cleared of the larger debris, the fallen trees; some of the garbage is being picked up. It's looking much better. But this is a very small part of town, and this was not flooded. Cleanup of actual flood damage is a ways away.

ELLIOTT: We keep hearing about people who don't want to leave New Orleans despite the fact that city officials have said everybody must go. Are there still people there holding out?

KASTE: There are, especially in the areas that weren't flooded, areas close to the French Quarter, areas in uptown, which weren't flooded as well. There are small clutches of people who really want to be part, they say, of the cleanup and recovery of their city. They think that this can't be done properly unless they're here to be part of it because it's such a big job, and they know their city. Now they feel very passionately about this, and there's sort of this tug of war with the law enforcement, which wants them out because, from the city's point of view, it's much harder to do what they need to do when they have to worry about the safety of small groups of people in large deserted neighborhoods. So this is definitely a tense sort of difference of opinion of who needs to be here to recover this city.

ELLIOTT: Martin, is there any sense of how long this process of going neighborhood by neighborhood, door by door in search of victims--how long that might take?

KASTE: I think anyone who makes a guess about that is really guessing because there's so little hard data about what's in those homes in the areas where the water has receded. It's such a large area of the city; it's most of the city. And I think it's really an exercise in estimating something where you don't have a lot of basic information to go on. I think the death toll will probably be much lower than that 10,000 figure that the mayor worried about. But at the same time, until the deeper water areas have been thoroughly investigated, all those homes have been opened up, no one can say for sure.

ELLIOTT: NPR's Martin Kaste from New Orleans. Thank you, Martin.

KASTE: You're welcome.

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