32 fatalities from Hurricane Sandy in New York City, and still counting

32-fatalities-hurricane-sandy-new-york-city-and-still-counting
Breezy Point on Wednesday. (Dave S. via Flickr)
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At his Wednesday afternoon briefing, Mayor Michael Bloomberg put the number of fatalities from Hurricane Sandy in New York City at roughly 30.

Nobody doubts that number will rise, including the mayor, who said, "We may find a few more bodies."

A Daily News report, updated at 1:00 this morning, put the number at 32.

The number is unlikely to remain there, not only because the situation is still dynamic, but also because because the totals in large-scale disasters like this one can be calculated in different ways.

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"If an elderly person survives the event itself, but they're displaced, they lose track of their medication, their displacement is stressful, they may have a heart condition, respiratory condition, if they die in the process of being displaced, do you count that as a disaster victim?" asks John Mutter, the professor in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Columbia University who compiled a death list for Hurricane Katrina. "Well I think you do. And there's a question of whether official numbers actually count that or not. There's no rules."

Another example of a death that might not be counted?

"If you were trying to evacuate in the path of the storm and you had an accident and died, are you a storm victim?" he continued. "Well, probably. You wouldn't be doing that otherwise."

I asked the mayor's spokesman how the city is counting fatalities but haven't received a response yet.

Even without including those arguably more tangential fatalities, Mutter, like the mayor, expects that the number of storm-related deaths will continue to rise before it crests and then, possibly, recedes.

"I think what you'll find is the count will go up in the next few days as they find people, as neighbors will say 'Gee what happened to Old Mary who lived down the street, we haven't seen her, is she all right?'" he said. "And progressively it will be discovered that there's more fatalities than you think.

The heartbreaking lead of that News report, for example:

Hurricane Sandy added seven bodies to its lethal legacy Wednesday, boosting the killer storm’s city death total to 32 as searchers scoured a Staten Island marsh for two toddlers swept from their helpless mother’s arms on a flooded street. Little Connor and Brandon Moore disappeared Monday in the floodwaters, leaving their terrified mom to swim for her life and pray for theirs. But two days later, there was still no sign of the pair despite an increasingly desperate hunt. More bodies were uncovered inside homes once the storm departed as the hurricane increased its body count long after the 90-mph winds and surging waters receded. An 87-year-old man, Hugo Senpo, was found face down in his flooded Coney Island living room -- and at least 10 other New Yorkers drowned inside their residences.

"There's dead and missing, and some of the missing are probably dead," Mutter said.

But some of them might also just be missing.

"What often happens in these big things is the numbers go up and up and up and up, and then they come back down, as some people who left town come back," he said. "You discover people in a shelter who you didn't know were there. It will peak at some number and then come back down."