New Orleans Begins Probe into Katrina Deaths

Louisiana officials are investigating what happened in New Orleans during the chaos that followed Hurricane Katrina. The probe will include autopsies and look at alleged murders during the storm and its aftermath and at the deaths of people in nursing homes and hospitals.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

From Louisiana today, more details about the deaths caused by Hurricane Katrina. More than 1,100 people are listed as having died in the storm; 896 in Louisiana alone. Today, officials provided details about the process they're using to examine the bodies and about how some of the victims died. NPR's John Ydstie reports.

JOHN YDSTIE reporting:

The Louisiana attorney general has requested autopsies of the dead found in nursing homes and hospitals after the storm to determine whether they died due to abandonment, negligence or euthanasia and whether criminal charges are warranted. In one nursing home in St. Bernard Parish alone, 34 elderly residents died because the owner failed to evacuate the facility. At a news conference today, Dr. Louis Cataldie, the Louisiana health official who's in charge of the process, says the autopsies required by the attorney general are slowing down the identification and return of bodies to relatives.

Dr. LOUIS CATALDIE (Louisiana Health Official): These are horrible times, and it's extremely frustrating and I wish I could speed up the process. But again, speeding up the process could contaminate the process, and I just cannot do that. If I had a child in that morgue, it'd be horrible, absolutely. I don't know any way to make it faster.

YDSTIE: So far, says Cataldie, only 32 of Katrina's victims have been positively identified and are ready to be returned to next of kin. Another 340 bodies have provided enough clues that officials are notifying families that they may have found the remains of their loved one. No remains will be released, however, until positive identification is achieved. That's challenging since deterioration of the corpses has made fingerprinting difficult. Also, many dental records were lost in the flood, along with personal effects needed for a DNA match.

Recently, the temporary morgue in the tiny town of St. Gabriel, east of New Orleans, has been processing just 10 to 12 bodies a day, far fewer than had been expected before the attorney general's investigation. Dr. Cataldie said he expected to continue to find significant numbers of bodies in the most heavily flooded areas, New Orleans' 9th Ward and St. Bernard and Plaquemine Parish. Following the news conference, Cataldie expressed concern about what residents might find now that they're returning to their homes.

Dr. CATALDIE: You know, I'm extremely concerned about people going back to their homes. You know, we didn't have intrusive search, so I'm extremely concerned. As a matter of fact, what we've done is we've linked up with the 911 system there so that if someone does come home and finds a family member inside, we'll get there as fast as we possibly can.

YDSTIE: Cataldie also addressed the issue of what now appear to be unsubstantiated reports of multiple murders and scores of corpses at the Superdome and Convention Center in the days after Katrina. There were reports of 30 to 40 bodies in the freezer at the Convention Center and hundreds of corpses in the Superdome. Cataldie says those reports were wildly in error. His numbers agree with those of New Orleans' coroner, Dr. Frank Minyard, who detailed them in an interview with NPR last night, beginning in the Convention Center where four bodies were recovered.

(Soundbite of previous broadcast)

Dr. FRANK MINYARD (New Orleans' Coroner): There was one person that had a gunshot wound, but the other three were just normal deaths, that--heart attacks and whatnot that happened as a result of the hurricane. In the Superdome, we had one person who either jumped or was pushed from high up inside and died from a fall, and there was no homicides or gunshot wounds of the people that we took out of there.

YDSTIE: In total, there were six bodies recovered from within the Superdome and several more outside.

One of the most horrifying stories that came out of the Convention Center was that of a young girl between seven and 13 reportedly raped and murdered. Both Minyard and Cataldie said no victim fitting that description was recovered from the Convention Center site. In all, says Minyard, it appears there were seven people who died of gunshot wounds in the whole city in the days following Katrina's destruction. The coroner says one challenge has been fixing a time of death for Katrina's victims, so he says he's made an arbitrary decision.

Dr. MINYARD: We're putting on or about August 29th.

YDSTIE: That's the day Katrina made landfall on the Gulf Coast. John Ydstie, NPR News, Baton Rouge.

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