With the death toll rising to 816 in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, there is one grisly factor that could make it skyrocket closer to the early grim estimates of 10,000 dead.
According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in Northern Virginia, which is coordinating the search for kids lost in the mayhem that ensued when the storm hit, about 2,000 children have still not been located.
In addition, some 6,000 adults have not been found.
In the days following the storm and the mass evacuation of New Orleans, some 7,205 adults were reported missing. Of those, only 945 have been found. Likewise, some 2,709 children were reported missing, of whom 701 have been found.
That leaves over 8,000 still unaccounted for – even as authorities work night and day trying to reunited families and search for those missing.
Since Labor Day, the center has fielded more than 16,000 calls, many from frantic parents trying to find their kids.
The center has been around for more than 20 years, helping police throughout the country find children who have run away or been abducted.
The organization has a 40-person high-tech call center (888-544-5475) and maintains an active website – and is staffed by many retired law-enforcement people.
Since the center was already busy as usual with its normal caseload of missing children, its management flew in volunteers from around the country. Retired sheriffs, police officers and FBI agents have been working around the clock.
The website, which includes many pictures of missing children, is receiving between 10 million and 20 million visits per day. On an average day, the site receives 1 million visits.
Ernie Allen, the chief executive officer of the center, told CBS News that the children who are missing are not a result of parental neglect, but just the opposite.
“These parents were willing to sacrifice everything to save their children,” he said. “When the helicopter arrives on the roof of the flooded apartment building and there are three seats and you’ve got a mom and four kids, she’s not going to get on that helicopter and leave the other two, so it’s the children that are getting put into the helicopter and the boats.”
At some crowded evacuation points, parents were told to “pass all of the babies forward.”
“When you see all these people working on it, I feel hopeful that people will be reunited,” said first lady Laura Bush yesterday when she visited the center.
There’s still hope for many of the children, said Marketa Garner Gautreau, assistant secretary for Louisiana’s Office of Community Services. She suggested that some of these children could be with one parent without the other’s knowledge.
When relatives or guardians cannot be located, the state is authorized children into foster care. Gautreau said 50 children have been placed into foster care since Katrina hit.