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Weather link questioned in reports of some deaths

On Monday afternoon, Bruce Mounce was riding his motorcycle down O'Possum Kingdom Road in Berea when he slid out of control in a sharp curve and hit a utility truck. Mounce, 56, was pinned beneath the Pike Electric Co. truck's tire and died at the scene.

Because the utility truck was repairing damage from the Jan. 27 ice storm, Mounce's accident was classified as a storm-related death by the state medical examiner's office.

Two weeks after what some have called Kentucky's worst natural disaster, a total of 36 deaths has been labeled "storm-related." Many of those were cases of carbon monoxide poisoning (most involving people without power improperly using generators or space heaters) or people who froze to death because they had no electricity.

But the link between the storm and some other deaths on the list appears to be more tenuous.

State officials say they're trying to get an accurate overall picture of the storm's deadly effects. Others say officials might be stretching the definition of a storm-related death, which could make the disaster sound worse than it was.

Initially, Madison Coroner Jimmy Cornelison said he didn't see the connection between the storm and Mounce's accident, which took place almost two weeks after the storm hit. "They asked me about it and told me it was going to be listed as storm-related," said Cornelison. "I'd have listed it as an accident, but whatever they want to do, that's fine."

A similar situation arose last week in Hardin County. County Coroner William Lee had doubts that the death of 71-year-old Marion Cecil Bird, who had a heart attack while cutting brush with a chain saw on Feb. 6, should be classified as storm-related. "I didn't think that one qualified, but they (state officials) said it did," Lee said. "Had there not been a storm, he wouldn't have died of a stress-related heart attack."

Mike Wilder, executive director of the State Medical Examiner's Office in Frankfort, said the state has no reason to inflate the number of deaths and that the data were collected to get a complete picture of the storm.

Kentucky has received public assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency because of the large amount of infrastructure damage. Under that program, the state gets financial help for emergency response and cleaning up debris.

The state has not requested or received individual assistance from the federal government, which typically occurs when more homes are destroyed in a disaster such as a hurricane or tornado. In cases of individual assistance, FEMA can reimburse families for some funeral expenses.

Public assistance dollars are determined by the amount of damage per a county's population, and the number of deaths does not carry any weight, said FEMA spokesman Ron Whittington.

Wilder said it's tough to know where to draw the line on defining which deaths are storm-related. "If the storm had not occurred, that utility truck from out of state would not have been en route to restore service," he said in reference to Mounce's collision.

But George Nichols, retired Chief Medical Examiner, questioned that logic. "Were it not for the storm, the truck wouldn't have been there, but I don't see why he wouldn't have hit the fire hydrant behind it," Nichols said of the motorcycle accident in Madison County. "That's at least highly doubtful in its logic. This (the storm deaths) is meant to be a hard number, but isn't this turning it into a PR thing instead?"

Wilder said the death classification is data collected for "the whole scope of the picture."

But Joshua Perper, medical examiner of Broward County, Fla., says that loose classification of deaths won't help officials learn from the event. "If the deaths could have occurred without the storm, there are problems," he said in a phone interview.

Perper should know. He was part of a 2005 review of deaths during Florida hurricanes in 2004. According to the Sun-Sentinel newspaper, FEMA paid some funeral expenses for 319 Floridians who died of "storm-related causes," but the review by the state Medical Examiners' Commission found that 200 of those deaths had nothing to do with hurricanes.

That sounds familiar to Ohio County Coroner Larry Bevil. In his county, Rebecca Burden, 57, had recently come home from the hospital suffering from emphysema. The night of the storm, her family called an ambulance.

When it got there, she refused to get in, and her family supported her decision, Bevil said. Burden died that night. The family called an ambulance again to pick up the body, but this time the ambulance couldn't get through because of downed trees. The state is still listing Burden as one of the 36 deaths from the storm, saying that she died because an ambulance couldn't get to her in time.

"I didn't list it that way," Bevil said. "She refused treatment and died at home. This has really gotten blown out of proportion."

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