There are more than 6,600 people still missing as a result of Hurricane Katrina, according to the National Center for Missing Adults, a group working with the Justice Department on the issue.
The missing are out there, somewhere. Alive or dead or … just plain gone with the wind.
"What a perfect time for someone to disappear," says Gary Hargrove, Harrison County coroner and member of an ad hoc task force working to locate the missing from the Gulf Coast of Mississippi, of the circumstances surrounding the destruction of Hurricane Katrina.
Hargrove’s task force has winnowed the missing list from the 1,300s down to just 68. "But really, there are only 12 missing," he says quite matter-of-factly. And frankly, it’s only those 12 he’s really concerned about. "The other 56 are child molesters or other types of criminal" that have likely used the chaos wrought by Katrina to slip into the wind, Hargrove said. "These are people that don’t want to be found, aren’t going to be found."
The dozen remaining missing are likely deceased, Hargrove acknowledged; however, without a body he can’t declare them dead. And so the wait goes on, even if the searching has long since stopped.
Into the wind
"Into the wind." It’s a euphemistic phrase for something that’s gone, unlikely to be retrieved. And as sure as the magnolias will bloom again along this shattered coast, there are those that have used the tragedy of Katrina to simply slip away, to get into the wind.
"I feel comfortable saying certainly there are individuals out there that may take a tragedy (like Hurricane Katrina or 9/11) and use it as an opportunity to maybe escape from things going on in their lives; change their location, etc.," says Erin Bruno, lead case manager at the National Center for Missing Adults.
Bruno didn’t have any hard statistics on how many people might have gone missing on purpose after Katrina hit, "but my guess is that it’s going to be less than 10 percent," she said. "I’ve come across a few cases, assisting with Hurricane Katrina families, where individuals have done such a thing but I think those cases are few and far between," Bruno said.
Most of those still missing in the regions affected by Katrina are probably alive and trying to get in touch with family members but they just don’t have any records or means to do that, Bruno said. "Many of those still missing we’re hoping are OK, and are just in a different location, trying to touch base with their loved ones," she said.
In terms of comparing the missing from Katrina and those listed as missing as a result of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, "there’s really no comparison," says Tal Moise, CEO of Verified Person, a private firm that does corporate backgrounder screening. Where 9/11 was a short, sharp, horrific incident, its impact and affected area were largely constrained to a small geographic area; Katrina blew away whole chunks of three states, said Moise, who has volunteered the services of his company to local law enforcement agencies in order to help track down and keep tabs on various criminal types that used Katrina as an opportunity to disappear.
In the New Orleans area, Human Rights Watch compared an official list of all inmates held at the Orleans Parish Prison prior to Katrina hitting with a list of inmate evacuees complied by the state Department of Corrections and Public Safety and found 517 missing names. Many of those missing included men that had been jailed for criminal trespass, drunk in public or disorderly conduct, Human Rights Watch said. Many of those hadn’t even been charged, much less convicted, the group said.
Attempts to reach the Louisiana Department of Corrections and Public Safety weren’t successful. However, a spokeswoman for the Orleans Parish sheriff’s department told Human Rights Watch that search-and-rescue teams scoured the jail facilities and she insisted that "nobody drowned, nobody was left behind."
"What did we learn from 9/11? We learn that fraud occurs," Moise said. "Whether that’s done for insurance purposes or it’s done as a way to start life over or it’s done because it’s such a mental trauma for the individual to live through, some people become listed as deceased who were not," he said. "And some families attempted to collect settlements in order to take advantage of a very unfortunate situation," he said.
No reason to come back
Many of the Katrina victims still missing throughout the region might simply just have decided there’s nothing to come back to or for, Moise notes, and so they’ve stayed away, leaving friends behind still wondering about them.
Still others, like sex offenders or other criminal types, possibly saw Katrina as an opportunity to get out from under a watchful eye, Moise figures. Although sex offenders are required by law to register with local law enforcement officials when they relocate, the impetus is all on the sex offender. If offenders never register, the local authorities would likely never know they are there.
Verified Person has a nationwide database system able to track any convicted sex offender. "Whenever a new point of knowledge comes up about that individual, a flag goes off in our system," Moise said. "At that point we notify the local police, if they are working with us, that a new sex offender has moved into their location."
Individuals whose livelihood will be benefited by a re-establishment of their identity in a new location will use (disasters) to get lost, Moise said. "A natural tragedy is only a reason for it [relocation] to occur in a very short window of time," he said. "Any of these guys can get on a bus, go two states over and get lost just as easily at any time and any place. The disaster did not cause them to go away; it gave them the impetus to do it at the same time."
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