NEW ORLEANS – Nearly six months after Hurricane Katrina, more than 1,300 bodies have been found, but the real death toll is clearly higher. How much higher, no one can say with any certainty.
Hundreds of people are still unaccounted for, and some of them — again, no one is sure how many — were probably washed into the Gulf of Mexico, drowned when their fishing boats sank, swept into Lake Pontchartrain or alligator-infested swamps, or buried under crushed homes, said Dr. Louis Cataldie, Louisiana medical examiner.
Cataldie noted that coffins, disgorged from the earth by the floodwaters, have been found great distances from their graveyards, and "if we have coffins that have washed 30 miles away, I can assure you there are people who have."
"The likelihood is there are people we will not find," he said.
New Orleans Coroner Frank Minyard said a final sweep of homes in the devastated Ninth Ward will be done this month with help from federal officials. After that, he said, any more bodies found will probably be discovered in out-of-the-way places by hunters or fishermen.
But neither he nor Cataldie would venture a guess as to how many how many undiscovered victims are out there.
The remains of 1,079 people have been recovered in Louisiana; an additional 231 were found in Mississippi. But Louisiana officials have information on roughly 300 people whose loved ones are desperately searching for them, months after the Aug. 29 storm struck the Gulf Coast and scattered the region's residents.
"I have people trying to close estates. I have lawyers calling me. I have people calling me, saying, 'Do you have my momma?"' Cataldie said.
About 90 bodies remain unidentified at the morgue. In some cases, they will be identified and removed from the list of the 300 or so missing, but that could still leave hundreds unaccounted for, Cataldie said.
The list of those reported missing to the Find Family National Call Center, run by state and federal officials in Baton Rouge, has about 2,300 people on it. Some have already been found but have not been taken off the list because family members have not notified authorities. Others are on the lam, wanted for a crime or child support payments.
But it is the others who have not been seen or heard from by family members that Cataldie worries he will never have answers for.
Of the 2,300 on the list, most are from New Orleans, and nearly three-quarters are black. Before Hurricane Katrina, about two-thirds of New Orleans was black. Of the 668 Louisiana dead identified and released by the morgue, three-quarters were from New Orleans. About half were black, and 44 percent were white.
Denise Herbert, who waited months before hearing last month that her missing 82-year-old mother had been identified at the morgue, said it was a heartbreaking ordeal. "How would you feel if you didn't know where your mother was for one day? Imagine 4 1/2 months," she said.
In addition to the stress and uncertainty for the loved ones, the lack of a body can prevent the settling of estates, the transfer of property titles and the payout of insurance benefits.
Family members can obtain a court order declaring a missing person dead, if they can offer sufficient proof.
Susan Burkenstock, a New Orleans lawyer who chairs the Louisiana Bar Association's estates and probate section, said that so far, she has heard of few Katrina-related cases where families have sought such a declaration. But she said that is not surprising.
Families often take several months to take legal action after tragedies, Burkenstock said: "They don't really know what to do."