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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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179 COMMENTS

Permanent ear tags,...bright orange for the offenders. Yeah thats the ticket.

AS HORRIBLE AS KATRINA WAS AND THE EFFECTS STILL ARE, IT WOULD BE MORE HORRIBLE FOR ONE OF THESE CHILD MOLESTERS TO GO TO OTHER STATES AND MOLEST AND KILL OUR CHILDREN. WE HAVE ENOUGH OF THAT CRAP ALREADY. WHEN THEY KNEW THE HURRICANE WAS GOING TO BE BAD THEY SHOULD OF ARRESSTED THOSE PREVERTS AND HELD THEM SOMEWHERE UNTIL IT WAS OVER. THAT WAY THEY WOULD KNOW WHERE THEY WERE.

On a more optimistic note, maybe some who have been in trouble with the law will truly use this opportunity to start over and better their lives.

As someone whose career involves advocating for children, my question is how much longer before the federal government begins to track child molesters. When will they do more than just provide a web site that is linked to state sites? Reportedly, the city of New Orleans has lost a tremendous amount of “paper” finger prints and criminal records. If these “molesters” were properly tagged as some states do, they would surface the minute they applied to rent a home, obtain employment, or were ever arrested again. When are we going to take this issue seriously? I pray there are no repeat offenders, such as the case of the repeat offender in Florida.

Pre-9/11, it was common knowledge that Big Brother has no business in knowing our every move. If someone wants to go "missing" they shouldn't need a huricane to do it.

Rare is the criminal that disappears to live an annonymous life as a law abiding citizen. What they did in the past they will repeat, and will once again have reason to disappear.

Is there going to be a website where people can view thise missing criminals, or at least the convicted sex offenders? It would sure help in finding them just like America's Most Wanted does.

No doubt about it. Perhaps a registry of the missing online will deter these people from showing their faces up somewhere else. I know that I don't want some child molester to be the newest person to move into my area, and since they aren't being kept track of by the state, who is keeping track?

Wouldn't it therefore make sense to post a listing of these missing sex-offenders so that hopefully they can be detained in their "new surroundings"?

To the ombudsman:

Why is this lousy piece of reporting your cover story?

The reporters do not explain how the number of missing went from 6600 to 1300. They do not explain how that was then narrowed to only 12.

Did they check with the registered sex offender database to find out how many actual sex offenders are missing?

In my many years of viewing the msnbc website, I have never seen a less substantial story as the main feature.

Crimanals will find a way around getting caught, this is the most convienent way to escape from their crimes and in all likelyhood commit the same if not worse crimes in other parts of the country.

Anyone that would take advantage of a situation such as this is no better than the actual criminals who have escaped from jail.

Unfortunately the inevidable is already happening. In small towns where population has increased due to evacuees, so has the crime rate.

It is upsetting to continually see the darker sides of this human tragedy highlighted. It seems like the focus should be on rebuilding the communities affected and helping those who have moved on to other places to adjust to their new surroundings. I'm tired of reading stories like this that make it seem like New Orleans was composed of a bunch of sick criminals.

What needs to be done with them, the sex offenders and career harden criminals alike, is to hang them, put them out of their misery once and for all, if they are ever caught in a criminal act again. And for those bleed hearts that can’t stand the sight of blood, I say, please do us all a favor and stay at home and allow the police and all the other law enforcement personal out there to do their jobs.

The criminals are in charge now, they know just what it takes to get in and out of the system and how they can mike it for all its worth. They use the courts, and you and me alike, for a free ride all their life. We provide them with free room and board, a better education than I can afford for myself, and then if that’s not enough, we’re expected to feel sorry for them once their release ‘cause they have a criminal record and it makes it hard for the to find a job…well boo-hoo!

“Hang Them and Hang Them High!”

Why don't you list the names and show the pictures of the registered sex offenders before someone else gets attackec. As long as they remain unknown they will commit other crimes.

On 11/29/05, Law and Order: SVU had an interesting episode about a sex offender from New Orleans that had kidnapped three sisters whose parents had been killed in Katrina and had moved to New York.
http://www.nbc.com/Law_&_Order:_Special_Victims_Unit/episode_guide/149.shtml

How many children are still missing? Have they all been reunited with their families?

what about the families that are left behind by the cowards that just walk away? it takes a REAL person to stand and face what life has thrown their way and to keeping forward to the next day..god does not give you anythign you can hot handle....

I find it hard to concieve that a large portion of the 6,600 missing people mentioned here are in fact deliberatly "hiding out" as this suggests and it is even harder to swallow that responsible people would actually believe such a thing. I am sure that "some" people may've taken advantage of this disaster to move out of the area but to suggest that over 6,600 people came up with the same idea at the same time to hide is like a story from the old Twilight Zone series or Chernoble type cover story to explain away the missing. I personally have many, many relatives who live in this disaster area but all are familiar with the hurricane issues invovled in having chosen to settle and remain there for over 200 years and I have never heard of any hurricane in the past where over six thousand residents purposefully chose to hide their whereabouts intentionally.

It upsets me to know that we live in a society where we know that these scumbags (child molesters) were not monitored enough to know where they are today. Would have been so hard to stick a band around their ankles? I bet we would know where most of them were if we had!!!!

It seems illogical that a convicted sex offender or anyone would use this to come up missing. Most of these missing persons didn't have alot of money before the disaster (probably the reason they didn't get lost into the wind) to chose forgoing all the federal and state funds available in order to now disappear really doesn't add up. I've always wondered how the huge estimate on the number of possible deaths was so far off, maybe it wasn't....

That is why in every state is should be law that you do a background check no for jobs. It would not be to discriminate against people but to help with this problem. Not only with this Katrina problem, but we just had a murder here in a hotel because no background check was done and a convicted murder was hired at the hotel and committed another crime. So we should look into getting those background.

Even if they relocate to 'start a new life' somewhere else, eventually they will slip up and reveal their SSN and will end up in a database (bank account, utility bills, cell phone, etc), which will contradict the records showing them deceased or missing. And with the Patriot Act in effect, it's even easier to find them now. So unless they go to another country and decide to live a primitive life without computers or modern systems, chances are they'll get caught up eventually. The world is too small nowadays to simply 'disappear'.

FEMA isn't helping things, either. In my area, the local police requested information on the evacuees that were moving into the FEMA trailers and FEMA has refused. So any child rapists, murderers, ect. that may want to relocate to our area can do so anonymously with our federal government's help. Thanks, FEMA.

It is a shame that people will use this tragedy to disappear from society, whether it is a criminal escaping a jail sentence or parole or even people avoiding financial obligations. However I do not blame the federal government. The local and state governments have always been aware that this could happen and did not take the necessary precautions to prevent what happened. I believe that the federal government when finally called upon did very well. We should truly look at our locally elected officials and think twice before entrusting another term to them.

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