WASHINGTON — The Jefferson Parish president's emotional retelling of a mother's desperate calls from a New Orleans nursing home included details that conflict with the timeline of the tragedy.
The story, of a colleague's mother begging her son for rescue as flood waters rose after Hurricane Katrina, came to prominence on Sunday, Sept. 4, when Aaron Broussard, president of Jefferson Parish in New Orleans, was interviewed by Tim Russert on NBC's Meet the Press. (MSNBC is a Microsoft-NBC joint venture.)
New details and interviews with the son whose mother died in the flood show that the tragedy unfolded from Saturday through Monday, Aug. 29 — not Monday through Friday, Sept. 2 as recounted by Broussard. The owners of the nursing home were indicted Tuesday for the deaths of more than 30 residents, which officials say occurred on Aug. 29.
In the course of the interview, in which Broussard was expressing frustration with the slow-footed response by the federal government to the hurricane, he related the personal story of a man whose mother had died in the flooding caused by Katrina. Broussard, who did not identify the man by name at the time, broke down in tears as he related the story. As the Meet the Press transcript shows, Russert paused the interview to allow Broussard to compose himself.
BROUSSARD: ... The guy who runs this building I'm in, emergency management, he's responsible for everything. His mother was trapped in St. Bernard nursing home and every day she called him and said, "Are you coming, son? Is somebody coming?" And he said, "Yeah, Mama, somebody's coming to get you. Somebody's coming to get you on Tuesday. Somebody's coming to get you on Wednesday. Somebody's coming to get you on Thursday. Somebody's coming to get you on Friday." And she drowned Friday night. She drowned Friday night.
RUSSERT: Mr. President...
BROUSSARD: Nobody's coming to get us. Nobody's coming to get us. The secretary has promised. Everybody's promised. They've had press conferences. I'm sick of the press conferences. For God sakes, shut up and send us somebody.
RUSSERT: Just take a pause, Mr. President. While you gather yourself in your very emotional times, I understand, let me go to Governor Haley Barbour of Mississippi.
Since the broadcast of the interview, which elevated Broussard to national prominence, a number of bloggers have questioned the validity of Broussard’s story.
Subsequent reporting identified the man whom Broussard was referring to in the Meet the Press interview as Thomas Rodrigue, the Jefferson Parish emergency services director. Contacted on Friday by MSNBC.com, Rodrigue acknowledged that his 92-year-old mother and more than 30 other people died in the St. Rita nursing home. They had not been evacuated and the flood waters overtook the residence.
The chronology of the phone calls described by Broussard came under particular scrutiny by bloggers.
Video: Comment controversy Rodrigue said he didn’t see or hear Broussard’s comments on Meet the Press. When told of the sequence of phone calls that Broussard described on Meet the Press, Rodrigue said “No, no, that’s not true.”
“I can’t tell you what he said that day, why he was confused, I’m assuming he was under a tremendous amount of pressure,” Rodrigue told MSNBC.
“I contacted the nursing home two days before the storm [on Aug. 27th] and again on the 28th of August,” Rodrigue said. “At the same time I talked to the nursing home I also talked to the emergency manager for St. Bernard Parish,” Rodrigue said, “to encourage that nursing home to evacuate like they were supposed to and they didn’t until it was too late.”
Broussard must have been confused “because I was calling, not my mother calling me, I was calling her,” Rodrigue said. Further, Rodrigue says he never made any calls after Monday, the day he figures his mother died, based on conversations he’s had with another person who had a family member perish inside St. Rita’s. Officials believe that the residents of St. Rita’s died on Monday, Aug. 29, not on Friday, Sept. 2, as Broussard had suggested.
Broussard could not be reached for comment Friday, but Jackie Bauer, a spokeswoman for Broussard who was present during the Meet the Press interview, said "it was a misunderstanding."
Late on Friday, Bauer told MSNBC.com: "I was there when he (Broussard) was doing that, when he was saying that, I think he was meaning that he was calling, he was calling and trying to talk to Tommy and telling him ‘don’t worry,' trying to console Tommy, 'don’t worry, we’ll get her out, don’t worry we’ll get her out.'"
When asked how Broussard could have gotten the details of his mother’s story so wrong, Rodrigue said, Broussard “was emotional, absolutely and he was from the time that he found out that, you know, that my mother had died and I was here doing what I’m required to do for the citizens for Jefferson Parish.”
Rodrigue said he hasn’t spoken with Broussard since the Meet the Press broadcast. “He’s been busy, I’ve been busy,” Rodrigue said. “I haven’t really had a chance to sit down and talk to him.”
The husband and wife owners of St. Rita’s nursing home in the New Orleans suburb of Chalmette have been charged with homicide in the case.
“The pathetic thing in this case was that they were asked if they wanted to move them and they did not,” Louisiana Attorney General Charles Foti said Tuesday. “They were warned repeatedly that this storm was coming. In effect, their inaction resulted in the deaths of these people.”
“They had a duty and a standard of care to people who could not care for themselves,” Foti said of the owners. “If you or I decided we are going to stay, we do it of our own free will. ... The people at the nursing home don’t have that choice.”
“Thirty-four people drowned in a nursing home when it should have been evacuated. I cannot say it any plainer than that,” Foti said, his voice rising with anger.
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