How does Louisiana count hurricane deaths?

Louisiana has attributed 26 deaths to Hurricane Ida

By: - September 13, 2021 7:02 am
Bob Dean warehouse

The Louisiana Department of Health removed nearly 850 nursing home residents from this warehouse in late August 2021 after nursing home owner Bob Dean transferred people there during Hurricane Ida. (Photo by Wesley Muller/Louisiana Illuminator)

Louisiana has recorded 26 “storm-related” deaths due to Hurricane Ida. But what counts as a hurricane death? And when will the counting stop?  

There is no checklist or clear set of rules for determining whether a death is classified as storm-related. Local parish coroners determine whether a death can be attributed to a weather event based on their own criteria, and then report the relevant deaths to the Louisiana Department of Health. The state then keeps track of the statewide tally.

Shane Evans, an investigator with the East Baton Rouge Coroner’s Office, said the determination in his office typically begins with a simple question: “Would they be dead had it not been for the storm?”

Answering that question often requires looking beyond a hurricane’s winds and floodwaters, Evans said. There is also no deadline or cutoff point at which a death can no longer be considered storm-related. Deaths by hurricanes often occur days or even weeks after a storm has passed. 

So far, Hurricane Ida’s deadliest factor has been the loss of electricity, killing at least 17 people. Of those, 10 died from excessive heat, six from carbon monoxide poisoning and one from a lack of oxygen. In comparison, Ida’s floodwaters caused just two people to drown, and the hurricane’s winds killed one person, who died after a tree fell onto his home. 

Evans said it can be tempting for people to argue that an excessive heat death shouldn’t be considered storm-related because the victim could have left their home or called for help. But those victims are often elderly or have dementia and can be entirely unaware that they are overheating, he said.

As of Thursday, Evans was investigating two such cases of elderly residents who might not have died if their electricity had been working. No decisions have been made yet about whether those deaths can be attributed to the hurricane and they are not among the 26 Hurricane Ida deaths recorded so far by the state.

“You’ve got to look at these case-by-case,” Evans said.

If someone dies in a car accident while evacuating for a storm, such a death wouldn’t necessarily be considered storm-related unless other factors were involved, Evans said: “Was it purely a result of careless driving or did hurricane force winds push the car over and slam it into a tree?”

Yancy Guerin, who investigates deaths for the West Baton Rouge coroner, agreed. Guerin recalled a storm-related death in which a man drove his car into a canal and drowned. Although the man was intoxicated, the death was attributed to the natural disaster.

Guerin said witnesses reported that the road had flooded so badly that it became impossible for anyone to determine where the roadway ended and the canal began. The man would have still drowned if he had been sober, he said.

Attributing a death to a natural disaster is not the same as determining a cause of death or manner of death. There’s no box to check on a death certificate that says “storm-related,” Guerin said. 

Coroners report storm-related deaths to the state health department because they are a public health concern. Tracking them allows all agencies to define the scope and impact of a disaster event, and to develop prevention strategies, health department spokesperson Aly Neel said.

Neel said a prime example of this occurred following Hurricane Laura, which hit Southwest Louisiana in 2020. 

“As we saw the number of carbon monoxide deaths due to generators increase, multiple agencies across the state were able to push out generator safety tips in an effort to save lives,” she said. “Then, this was incorporated into pre-storm information pushed out prior to future storms.”

In almost every Hurricane Ida press conference held by Gov. John Bel Edwards, the governor reminded the public about the dangers and risks of carbon monoxide caused by generators. He gave the same warnings at his conferences following hurricanes Delta and Zeta last year. 

Other reasons storm-related deaths are recorded, Neel said, include helping relatives of a storm-related death victim qualify for funeral assistance from the federal government and helping communities and government agencies become better prepared to mobilize resources more efficiently. 

In at least one case, the state never actually finalized the number of the storm-related deaths.

After Hurricane Katrina, state officials continued to count the death toll for well over a year — but then said they ran out of money before they finished. The Times-Picayune puts the Katrina death count at over 1,800 — but there are varying estimates.  

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Wesley Muller
Wesley Muller

Wes Muller traces his journalism roots back to 1997 when, at age 13, he built and launched a hyper-local news website for his New Orleans neighborhood. In the years since then, he has freelanced for the Times-Picayune in New Orleans and worked on staff at the Sun Herald in Biloxi, WAFB-9News CBS in Baton Rouge, and the Enterprise-Journal in McComb, Mississippi.