The True Death Toll from Hurricane Rita

Hurricane Rita's death toll remains uncertain because there's no central authority responsible for defining and counting "hurricane-related deaths." For instance, the storm only glanced Houston, but may have nonetheless killed more than 100 residents of that city.

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This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.

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First, this. In Louisiana, officials have ended house-by-house searchers for more victims of Hurricane Katrina. The state's death toll from that hurricane is put at more than 970 people, with more than 220 dead in Mississippi. In the case of the later Hurricane Rita, investigators say that no one they know of died directly from that hurricane, but more than 100 people did lose their lives because of circumstances created by it. NPR's Mike Pesca reports.

MIKE PESCA reporting:

A day after Hurricane Rita made landfall at the extreme southeast tip of Texas, that state's governor, Rick Perry, appeared on "Meet the Press." When Tim Russert asked how many deaths have been the result of this hurricane, the governor answered.

(Soundbite of "Meet the "Press")

Governor RICK PERRY (Texas): Well, from the direct impact of the hurricane, it appears at this particular point in time that it's zero.

PESCA: Perry went on to acknowledge the bus near Dallas that exploded, killing 23, but concluded his answer with, `We have truly dodged a major bullet.' Soon thereafter, official tallies of the deaths inched up, but when the Houston Chronicle ran a story in the days after Rita, referring to a death toll of 10, they were inundated with letters wondering, `What about the bus?' As the Chronicle's editors considered that complaint, the medical examiner of Harris County, Houston's home, issued a report which documented 31 people who died during the evacuation process. Ronnie Crocker, an editor with the Chronicle, describes the paper's reaction.

Mr. RONNIE CROCKER (Houston Chronicle): We didn't realize how many people had died on the route, and when the medical examiner's list came across on, I guess, Wednesday afternoon and we saw 31 deaths, and you read the accounts of them, when they're like 108-degree temperature, 112, 107, it was clear immediately that they weren't just dying in Harris County, and so that's when we started looking at the different counties all along the evacuation route.

PESCA: Chronicle staffers began canvassing Texas' more than 250 counties. They talked to medical examiners, justices of the peace and hospitals in areas throughout the state. To date, this, the most complete survey, puts the total number of deaths attributable to Rita at 111. Who to count and who not to wasn't always clear. Ronnie Crocker gives this example.

Mr. CROCKER: But we had a two-year-old that was backed over, and the reason that child was out of the vehicle and, you know, near cars was because the family he was traveling with had stopped to rest in a line of traffic.

PESCA: These kinds of judgment call being made in the newsroom mirrored the work of medical examiners around the state. Galveston County, for example, had two deaths caused by Rita, maybe. One was a man who was asphyxiated, possibly preparing for the hurricane. The other was a teen-ager with a pre-existing heart condition who died in his car during the evacuation. Galveston's chief medical examiner, Stephen Pustlilnik, says all he can do is report his findings including his uncertainties to whatever entity is collecting the data, but right now no official requests for the information have been made.

The saddest part of this whole story may be that a lot of the evacuations were unnecessary and possibly even avoidable. While experts acknowledge that certain hurricanes on certain trajectories should spur a countywide evacuation, Rita turned out not to have been one of these hurricanes. The county based its evacuation plans partly on a survey conducted by a private firm. The wind damage expert for that survey was Bob Bailey. Bailey says there was enough time to realize that Rita had changed course, which is why he, unlike most of his neighbors, chose not to evacuate his suburban Houston home.

Mr. BOB BAILEY (Wind Damage Expert): I was actually surprised. The majority of our neighborhood evacuated. I think they were somewhat alarmed. It was always a worst case was what was being conveyed. You know, that's one part of the picture, but certainly it's not a complete picture.

PESCA: In natural disasters, complete and thorough pictures are often obscured. That's why getting a precise count of Rita's toll will be impossible, the medical examiners say. Perhaps the best method is one that has been used by epidemiologists for other public health crises. The number of deaths in a given time period--in this case, the last few days of September--will be taken, going back a few years. This will be compared to the overall death toll near Houston for late September 2005. The resulting difference, which sidesteps any debate about cause, is called excess deaths. The number will be neither definitive, nor perfect, but it will give future researchers a pretty good idea of the human toll of Rita's devastation. Mike Pesca, NPR News, New York.

CHADWICK: I'm Alex Chadwick. More in a moment on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.

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