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Rising from Ruin is an on-going MSNBC.com special report chronicling two coastal Mississippi towns, Bay St. Louis and Waveland, as they rebuild after Hurricane Katrina.

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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.

051116_cleanup_03 Authorities suspect that many people who are still listed as "missing" in Hancock County chose to slip away in the post-Katrina chaos to start new lives elsewhere. (John Brecher / MSNBC.com file)

"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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It will be interesting how many of the people, who are criminals and who are missing, will turn up in other areas and commit crimes. Watch the percentage of missing go down over time. I feel sorry for the people who will become victims of the criminals who came with an oppurtunity to be free once more blow it and turn to crime. They will no doubt get caught again and be sent to other prisons, but in the mean time, people will suffer.

You are right the people that are down there will suffer because of the federal governments poor response.God Bless the people of New Orleans!.

That's crazy. Just crazy. I am embarassed by human nature once again.


What about the missing children of Katrina? Are there any numbers regarding that?

I lived in the Gulfport area for 3 1/2 years in the late 1980's Wonderul place to live, so sad to see the destruction. I wonder if the silver lining might be that folks who might have been trying to get away from abusive situations might just have gotten the ultimate chance to leave that situation behind. I've no doubt the gracious people of MS and LA will rebound in fine fashion.

You have to expect that the convicts will turn up in other cities comitting crimes. The sex offenders won't register and anyone who has bad credit will probably assume a new name and social security number if they can. It is really going to be interesting when these people start showing up all over the place and are exposed or caught.

I agree and have empathy for the potential victims of missing criminals, but if you look at statistics, criminals repeat the same mistakes they did before, and without a doubt be caught again, facing charges in two (or more) locations.

Good riddance to bad rubbish...

It's already happened in some areas that took in Katrina refugees. Anectdotal evidence that I've received thirdhand indicated that one small Texas town had a town meeting about taking in refugees (it's that small), and agreed to take in 100 people. The first night after they arrived, something like 8 vehicles (can't remember the exact number, but it was on that order) were stolen in an otherwise peaceful town.

What will be interesting to see is how issues like the police department's hundreds of missing officers not actually existing (they were imaginary officers created as part of a PR campaign to supposedly deter lawbreakers)and the 517 missing inmates are handled. Knowing Louisiana's lengthy history of corruption rising to the highest levels of state government, it would not surprise me if those 517 never actually existed, but were on the rolls to ensure that more money would flow into someone's pocket.

Many of them "disapeared" here to Houston where our murder rate has skyrocketed.

I don't feel comfortable about the word 'many' being used to describe the amount of criminals missing. 'Many' have simply perished and 'Many' are too busy trying to restructure their lives to 'check in'.

It couldn't possibly be too hard to completely assume a new idenity, especially if you were directly involved in such a tragedy like hurricane Katrina. All it would really take is packing yourself up and going somewhere else, somewhere nobody knows you, going to the DMV and telling them an address and say that everything you've ever owned was destroyed, all forms of identification, everything. And I garuntee you could be a new person in an hour.

I speculate this number will actually be really small, relative to those that are dead. We have lots of missing still missing on one hand, and people still discovering dead bodies in NOLA that were never collected. I think there was a concerted effort to keep the death toll due to the hurricane as low as possible, and while I have no doubt some people may have slipped away, it sounds too much like me a story meant to take the edge off the enormous number of people still missing.

Another good reason to install some sort of micro-chip or tracking device on the offender.

If these criminals were caught once, they can be caught again. I think it is just a matter of time before they mess up and commit another crime. They WILL be caught again.

Oprah will be a strong source to identify the "missing" sex offenders to a great extent providing a photo can be issued.

Still..there IS a chance that some of these people are dead. Some bodies might never be recovered after being submerged in water or exposed to animal & insect life.

Wait...Hargrove isn't worried about the potential that up to 56 child molesters/rapists are unaccounted for? I hope his family isn't adversly affected by those missing criminals. What we need to do is change the law...the onus to register as a sex offender should not be in the hands of the criminals.

I don't understand why these people would not be found. If they get jobs and have to give their social security number, then the FBI data base should be able to track them. I may be way off on this but it seems reasonable to me.
And did it occur to anyone, (bad as it may sound) but what about all the crocodiles. They are very prevalent there. I know it can't account for most of them but I bet it would for some.

I think it's just another sad comment on the state of our legal system. Most of these "people" shouldn't have been out of jail in the first place. If they had been punished correctly and spent the full amount of time in jail that they were sentenced to, the would still be there. Instead, we have criminals "lost in the wind".

At a time when the government seems to want more and more control of our life's, as well as the loss of some basic Constitutional Rights, (like the Writ of Habeas Corpus), who would not want to just disappear?

To bad we will most likely only hear about the criminal aspect of this issue.

It’s easy to criticize the actions or lack of the same by others. When everything is said and done the Hurricane Katrina affair was handled terrible. High paid officials that knew or ought t o have known that levies could fail kept living like ostriches with their head in the sand. The aftermath of Katrina was also not handled well by many elected officials and/or civil servants (Federal, State or Local.)

Each and every one of those officials should now bear some responsibility for the criminals that have chosen to disappear.

These ev4ents really dictate the need for ankle monitoring of all sex offenders in the US. These vermin will prey on any dysfunctional situation in a victim's life and use it to his advantage.

I think the authorities who were responsible for these criminals that were locked up should be held with some type of liability. After all, these criminals were locked up and away from society. Now, because of the severe neglect of the police and prison officials society is once again vulnerable to these individuals perpetrating their crimes upon humanity. For every incident committed against a citizen, the victim should be able to sue the State of Louisiana, the Mayor and Governor for their failure to maintain order during a natural disaster. Geez, we are no better off that those subject to the likes of those in Iraq who purposely intend to kill members of society. Now, we in America have to walk around wondering if a person(s) are from the jail cells of Louisiana.

So much for America the Beautiful, now its American the Frightened.

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