Katrina toll: Dead weren't disproportionately poor, black

Knight Ridder NewspapersDecember 29, 2005 

NEW ORLEANS – Four months after Hurricane Katrina, analyses of data suggest that some widely reported assumptions about the storm’s victims were incorrect.

For example, a comparison of locations where 874 bodies were recovered with U.S. Census tract data indicates that the victims weren’t disproportionately poor.

Another database, compiled by Knight Ridder of 486 Katrina victims from Orleans and St. Bernard parishes, suggests they also weren’t disproportionately African American.

Both sets of data are incomplete; Louisiana state officials have released no comprehensive list of the dead. Still, they provide the most comprehensive information available to date about who paid the ultimate price in the storm.

The one group that was disproportionately affected by the storm appears to have been older adults. People 60 and older account for only about 15 percent of the population in the New Orleans area, but the Knight Ridder database found that 74 percent of the dead were 60 or older. Nearly half were older than 75. Many of those were at nursing homes and hospitals, where nearly 20 percent of the victims were recovered.

Lack of transportation was assumed to be a key reason that many people stayed behind and died, but at many addresses where the dead were found, their cars remained in their driveways, flood-ruined symbols of fatal miscalculation.

The addresses where bodies were recovered were compiled by Louisiana state officials and released earlier this month. Knight Ridder charted the locations on a map of Orleans and St. Bernard parishes, then compared them with census data on income in those neighborhoods. The analysis excluded 216 bodies that were recovered from hospitals and nursing homes, as well as 63 recovered at collection points where people had dropped off bodies in the days after the storm; those victims probably came from locations other than the census tracts where they were found.

The comparison showed that 42 percent of the bodies found in Orleans and St. Bernard parishes were recovered in neighborhoods with poverty rates higher than 30 percent. That’s only slightly higher than the 39 percent of residents who lived in such neighborhoods, according to the census data.

Similarly, 31 percent of the bodies turned up in areas with poverty rates below 15 percent, where 30 percent of the population lived.

The median household income in neighborhoods where Katrina victims were recovered was about $27,000 a year, just under the $29,000 median for the overall area.

One-fourth of Katrina deaths fell in census tracts with median incomes above $35,300. One-fourth of the area’s pre-storm population lived in tracts with median incomes above $37,000.

About 67 percent of the mapped deaths fell in the central and western portion of New Orleans, an area thought to have flooded primarily because of the failure of man-made structures.

The separate Knight Ridder database of 486 Katrina victims was compiled from official information released by state and federal authorities and interviews with survivors of the dead. It cataloged deaths according to location, race, age, name and cause of death.

In that database, African Americans outnumbered whites 51 percent to 44 percent. In the area overall, African Americans outnumber whites 61 percent to 36 percent.

In Orleans Parish, 62 percent of known Katrina victims were African American, compared with 66 percent for the total parish population. In St. Bernard Parish, 92 percent of the identified victims were white. Census figures show that 88 percent of parish residents identified themselves as white.

Among hurricane victims on the Knight Ridder list, men outnumbered women 51 percent to 49 percent, about the same as in the overall area before the storm.

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