Video: Katrina survivor's story

By Dawn Fratangelo Correspondent
NBC News
updated 3/3/2006 7:22:10 PM ET 2006-03-04T00:22:10

Hearing the dire warnings of Hurricane Katrina, Marguerite Serigne thought first of her mother, Betty, at St. Rita's Nursing Home, in St. Bernard Parish.

"I wouldn't leave my mother, never," she says. "Whatever was going to happen, we were going to be together."

In conference calls between federal, state and local officials — obtained by NBC News — St. Bernard Parish knew it was in dangerous territory after Katrina hit. On one call recorded Aug. 29, 2005, officials said they anticipated very deep water in the parish, anywhere from eight to 21 feet.

At 7:30 a.m. on Aug. 28, 2005, the day before the storm made landfall, the parish issued a mandatory evacuation order. Despite that order, the owners of St. Rita's did notevacuate.

So Marguerite Serigne stayed — and in her first televised interview — describes riding out the hurricane inside the nursing home.

"It just seemed so loud, you know? The wind," she says.

Then the floodwaters.

"I could see it pouring into the windows, through the bricks, through the air conditioners and everything," remembers Serigne. "The bed is floating and it's going towards the ceiling. [And my mother's on it] and I'm holding the bed, trying to hold her hand, and then I hear someone say, ‘Somebody has a boat.'"

They got out, but 35 residents died.

"I heard one lady screaming to help her, she was drowning," recalls Serigne.

The Louisiana attorney general charged the owners, Sal and Mabel Mangano with negligent homicide. Every other nursing home in St. Bernard Parish evacuated before Katrina hit, except St. Rita's. NBC News wanted to talk to the Manganos about that decision, but they declined our request for an interview.

By most accounts, the nursing home was well-run, the owners respected. So why the decision notto leave?

NBC News obtained a copy of St. Rita's state-approved evacuation plan that vows "... to safely transport all residents to a place of safety." But the state doesn't require homes to make clear when those plans should be activated.

In a deposition, a parish official said that the day before Katrina he offered St. Rita's owner "two buses that will take you wherever you'd like to go." The owner said no.An attorney for the owners, Jim Cobb, says officials didn't make clear the evacuation was mandatory.

"They didn't communicate anything mandatory," Cobb says. "They offered something, they didn't order anything. And now, they seek to have us held criminally responsible. That's not fair."

Cobb says the owners made a judgment call,believing it safer for residents to stay put. 

"If you take ill, aged people and put them on a bus for 16 to 18 hours in evacuations, people are going to die," he says.

Meanwhile, Marguerite Serigne's mother, Betty, is at a new nursing home in Florida with some emotional scars. When it rains, it affects her.

"Even when they give her a shower, she hollers," says Serigne. "She doesn't want to go down that river again."

As for St. Rita's, Marguerite Serigne says it should have evacuated.

"I'm thankful to God that we're here," she says. "And I don't know why we made it."

It was just one of the monumental decisions made during Katrina, but the one Marguerite Serigne made saved her mother's life.

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