Chapter Chapter 1
Section Measuring the Immeasurable: The Human Toll
Measuring the Immeasurable: The Human Toll
When the winds and floods of Hurricane Katrina subsided, an estimated 1,330 people were dead as a result of the storm.43 The vast majority of the fatalities—an estimated 80 percent—came from the New Orleans metropolitan area; Mississippi suffered greatly as well, with 231 fatalities.44 Many of the dead were elderly or infirm. In Louisiana, approximately 71 percent of the victims were older than sixty, and 47 percent of those were over seventy-five.45 At least sixty-eight were found in nursing homes, some of whom were allegedly abandoned by their caretakers.46 Of the total known fatalities, there are almost two hundred unclaimed bodies remaining at the Victim Identification Center in Carville, Louisiana.47 As awful as these horrifying statistics are, unfortunately they are not the end of the story. As of February 17, 2006, there were still 2,096 people from the Gulf Coast area reported missing.48
For the survivors, the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina has been characterized by a mixture of grief, anxiety, and frustration. Around 770,000 people were displaced—the largest since the Dust Bowl migration from the southern Great Plains region in the 1930s.49 After Hurricane Katrina, housing options often arrived slowly to those who could not return to their ruined homes; by the end of October, there were still more than 4,500 people staying in shelters. The numbers of evacuees residing in such transient emergency shelters had dropped significantly by January 2006, and families have slowly begun to find permanent housing.50
Moreover, many victims found it difficult to reconstruct their shattered lives. In many cases, they had either lost or forgotten basic documents, such as insurance information, birth certificates, and marriage licenses, which would later prove essential to rebuilding their lives.51 Most of the evacuees did not have access to their medical records, which increased the risk of complications when receiving medical treatment.52 For those who returned to their homes in the Gulf region, basic services were still wanting. By January, 85 percent of public schools in Orleans parish had still not reopened; in the metropolitan area, approximately two-thirds of the retail food establishments, half of the bus routes, and half of the major hospitals remained closed.53 For Katrina’s victims, a sense of “back to normal” still seems far away.
Of the 1.1 million people over the age of sixteen who evacuated in August 2005, approximately 500,000 of those evacuees had not returned home by late December. For the evacuees who have not returned to their homes, jobs have been scarce. Their unemployment rate was just below 28 percent in November and over 20 percent in December. The former evacuees who did return to their homes in the Gulf region had better access to work with an unemployment rate of 12.5 percent in November, which fell to 5.6 percent in December.54 In July, before Katrina hit, the unemployment rate in the most affected areas of Louisiana and Mississippi had been 6 percent.55
By any measure, Hurricane Katrina was a national catastrophe. Similar to the images of grief and destruction on September 11, 2001, the images of suffering and despair from Hurricane Katrina are forever seared into the hearts and memories of all Americans. Those painful images must be the catalyst for change.