One more name added to Katrina death roll

Published 12:14 am Sunday, August 29, 2010

BILOXI (AP) — The names of 170 victims of Hurricane Katrina in southern Mississippi were sandblasted on a memorial before a ceremony marking the storm’s five-year anniversary Sunday. It would have been 169 names if not for a chance encounter.

Architect Dennis Cowart, who designed the memorial, was tasked with compiling an accurate list of the dead and missing. He thought it was complete until a former client, Phil McCuien, stopped by his Ocean Springs office five weeks ago and mentioned in passing that his wife has been missing since the 2005 storm that devastated the region.

That surprised Cowart, who hadn’t seen Jeannette McCuien’s name on any of the official lists he used to determine which names belong on the memorial.

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“It was a complete coincidence,” Cowart said of his encounter with McCuien. “I don’t know how it slipped through the cracks.”

The memorial lists Jeannette McCuien as “missing.” Her case is still classified as “open/unsolved,” according to Capt. Mick Sears, chief investigator for the Jackson County sheriff’s department.

Two years ago, however, her husband petitioned a court to declare her legally dead.

“It’s something you never get over,” he said.

Jeannette McCuien, who was 59, was home alone when Katrina approached the Gulf Coast. Her husband had left to tend to property in Michigan, where they lived before retiring and moving to the coast.

Phil McCuien said his wife told neighbors she planned to seek refuge in a shelter. But her husband speculates she decided to ride out the storm at their waterfront home with her dog, Sadie, because shelters weren’t allowing pets.

His last contact with his wife was a phone message asking, “What is the safest room in the house to be in?”

Phil McCuien drove 14 hours from Detroit to Jackson County to find no trace of his wife at the house, which was reduced to a pile of bricks by an estimated 30-foot storm surge. He reported her missing to the sheriff’s office two days after Katrina’s landfall. Investigators took DNA samples from the McCuiens’ daughter.

“It will remain open until there’s some type of closure,” Sears said of the case.

Cowart said officials were “fairly confident” the list of Katrina victims was accurate “just because so many people checked it.” But Jeannette McCuien’s name wasn’t on any of the lists given to him by city officials and coroners for the state’s three coastal counties.

“There’s always room for error just because of the confusion” after the storm, Cowart said.

An accurate count for Katrina’s death toll is elusive. It’s impossible to know, for instance, if a person nobody was looking for after the hurricane could have been washed away by the enormous storm surge.

“To come up with an exact number would be hard to do,” said Capt. David Murtagh of the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation, which helped coordinate the search for people missing after the storm.

Statistics compiled by the state’s health department in 2006 blamed Katrina for at least 175 deaths in Mississippi. That didn’t include 23 deaths indirectly caused by Katrina, such as from injuries sustained while cleaning debris, and 19 others deemed “possibly related” to the storm. The names on the Biloxi memorial are limited to the three coastal counties.

Harrison County Coroner Gary Hargrove said officials compiled a list of roughly 1,800 people reported missing.

“We were looking for them by land. We were looking for them by air. We were looking for them by water,” Hargrove said.

Five years later, the list of missing has been whittled down to a handful of people. Besides McCuien, the memorial lists two others as missing: Clay Lee Lantier and Claudia Marsden, both from Harrison County.

Phil McCuien, now 68 and living in Gulfport, said he recently visited the memorial on Biloxi’s Town Green to see his wife’s name etched in the marble wall. Her last name is misspelled “McCuen,” a mistake Cowart said will be corrected.

Sometimes, Phil McCuien drives by the property where his wife of 30 years had last been.

“It’s kind of hard for me to revisit it,” he said.