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Families say stress of Katrina hastened deaths of loved ones

NEW ORLEANS -- You won't see Sylvester Major's name among the 1,698 listed officially as Hurricane Katrina victims.

He survived the floodwaters that gushed through the windows and door of his house. He persevered through miserable, fearful days at the convention center. He endured separation from family and the only hometown he had ever known. And he lived for more than a year after the tragedy on Aug. 29, 2005.

Officially, he was listed as having died of congestive heart failure at 59. But his family and a social worker who was with him when he died say the real cause was a broken heart, inflicted by Katrina and the loss of his elderly mother, who died after she was evacuated.

"Being away from most things we love, the people we're used to . . . it had to take a toll on him," said Major's brother, Ellis Coleman Jr. "He just didn't have the will to go on. He lost the spark."

Major's story is one told and retold here since Katrina: Friends and family say the deaths of many New Orleans residents were hastened by the stress and heartache of seeing their hometown ravaged and their lives upended.

No one can say for certain whether deaths like Major's were caused by Katrina. Many of the dead were elderly or had serious health problems even before the storm.

The official Katrina death toll is based on the bodies collected in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama and from reports from other states of evacuated Louisiana residents who died in the month afterward.

To help determine whether, as many residents believe, people are dying from the stress of the disaster and the grueling rebuilding, Louisiana's state epidemiologist, Raoult Ratard, did a comparison between deaths in the six months after the storm and the period the year before. But he said no definitive pattern had emerged.

Without accurate population statistics, and with so many people dying away from home, the numbers yielded few reliable conclusions, he said.

Ratard said it is plausible that elderly and frail people who went without their usual medication and who suffered the stress of evacuation died prematurely, but quantifying the deaths may be impossible. New Orleans' pre-Katrina population of 455,000, which declined precipitously after the evacuation, is believed to be about 200,000.

"There are some things we will really never know. We'll have to live with that," Ratard said.

For those who knew Major, there is little question that Katrina hastened his deterioration, ending his life before his family could get him home from Oklahoma City, where he was cared for at a nursing home.

"I'm telling you, all the way, it was Katrina. It just broke his heart," said Joann Bowers, a social worker at the Grace Living Centers nursing home. "You really can die of a broken heart. I don't care what anyone says."

During Major's 10-month stay in Oklahoma, Bowers said, only a few things seemed to perk him up: New Orleans Hornets basketball, talk about traditions like Mardi Gras king cakes and parades, and home-cooked food.

Major, a former laundry worker whose wide grin and smooth threads drew comparisons to Cedric the Entertainer, never had any interest in leaving New Orleans, said his son, Sylvester Major Jr. The elder Major's first trip in an airplane was his evacuation flight.

He desperately wanted to come home.

"It was almost like being in a foreign land," the 35-year-old son said of Major's stay in Oklahoma City.

The son and his wife arranged for a New Orleans-area nursing home to take the elder man this fall, but before Major could make the trip home, they got word that he was too ill to travel.

Bowers, who was with the ailing Major in the final hours before he died Oct. 30, said she had made him a promise: "Somehow, someone will get you home." Unable to speak, the dying man squeezed her hand.

Major was laid to rest on Nov. 11 in a tomb overlooking the grave of the gospel singer Mahalia Jackson.

There was never any question the New Orleans native would eventually make it home, his son said: "That's what he would have wanted."

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