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Portrait of many of Katrina’s victims emerges

A portrait of victims of Hurricane Katrina is emerging: older residents who died because they were unable — or unwilling — to evacuate their low-lying neighborhoods.
/ Source: The Associated Press

The water was rising at a frightening rate, but Randolph Fazande’s elderly mother wasn’t scared — or wasn’t showing it. Her son says that was her way.

“She’d always lie to me when she was having trouble,” Fazande says in recounting their last phone conversation. “She didn’t want me to worry.”

Bernadette and Alvin Fazande, both 79 and married 58 years, apparently perished after flooding caused by Hurricane Katrina turned the attic of their one-story home in Jefferson Parish into a suffocating death trap, according to their son.

The couple are typical of the disaster’s victims: older residents who died because they were unable — or unwilling — to evacuate their low-lying neighborhoods.

Their case also illustrates the agony of some families still waiting for the St. Gabriel Morgue near Baton Rouge to identify and release the bodies.

490 victims identified
Only now, nearly two months after the storm, is a picture of the dead coming into focus, in part because of the complex, drawn-out process of identifying the more than 1,000 dead in Louisiana. As of last week, only about 490 storm victims had been identified, and only 150 names had been released.

About 60 percent of the victims identified so far were 61 or older, according to a report from the state Department of Health and Hospitals. Officials say some died during or before the Aug. 29 storm, or drowned in the rushing floodwaters that ensued. Others died in transit, or just waiting.

There was Ruby Mae Frazier, 76, an entrepreneur who got caught in the flood while trying to drive home in her car, and later died of pneumonia. She was known as “Mom” or “Miss Ruby” in the rough Ninth Ward, where she had opened up a sandwich shop using money she saved from bartending in New Orleans as a teenager.

There was Alma Ryburn, 83, an Alzheimer’s patient who died after being evacuated twice — first from a hospice in Jefferson Parish while fleeing the storm, then from St. Charles Hospital in New Orleans because of flooding. She was a master at Cajun cuisine and “had a rose garden to die for,” her daughter Ava Wichser Romair said. She would smile whenever her roses were brought to her.

‘A prayer to St. Anthony’
There was Nettie Armand Blutcher, 94, a fancy dresser and devout Catholic whose badly decomposed remains were discovered earlier this month by a niece searching for family heirlooms in the cottage-style home she had occupied for 70 years.

Fiercely independent, “Aunt Nettie” had called family members in California the day before Katrina hit, and told them she had three gallons of water and enough food to ride it out.

“Aunt Nettie, this is the big one,” warned another niece, Sheila Swift, of Buena Park, Calif.

“I’m going to stay and say a prayer to St. Anthony,” Swift recalled her aunt saying. “She took such pride in that house. She wasn’t going to leave.”

Blutcher lived in the historic working-class Gentilly neighborhood, which was devastated by water from levee breaks. A breakdown of deaths by ZIP code shows that the largest number of corpses were found there and in the impoverished lower Ninth Ward, the report said.

Equal opportunity demise
The report also found that of the bodies identified so far, 42 percent were black, 37 percent white and 3 percent Hispanic, according to the report. No racial or ethnic designation has been applied to 18 percent of the bodies.

The finding that many of the dead were older renewed troubling questions about decisions made by those responsible for their care and safety.

Louisiana Attorney General Charles Foti has been investigating deaths at six hospitals and 13 nursing homes. He has already filed 34 counts of negligent homicide against the owners of St. Rita’s nursing home in St. Bernard Parish for failing to heed warnings to evacuate.

The owners’ attorney disputes the charges, saying they faced a difficult decision because simply moving some of the frail patients could have been fatal. He also says the owners feverishly took patients to safety after floodwaters rose 10 feet in 20 minutes.

Jessie Lee May, 79, was among the victims at St. Rita’s. She loved bingo and “was outspoken, but she wasn’t vulgar,” said her daughter, Donna Lavalais.

“She deserved so much better than what she got,” Lavalais said.

‘We’re going to be all right’
Despite their advanced age, Bernadette and Alvin Fazande thrived on their own, said their 57-year-old son, who lived an hour away. Bernadette was a retired special education administrator, Alvin a handyman. They had saved enough money to travel — Las Vegas, Florida, the Bahamas.

When the flooding started, the couple retreated to the attic with only one small bottle of water. But Fazande said his mother remained composed, telling him by cell phone, “We’re going to be all right.”

That was Monday night. On Tuesday, they stopped answering their phone. Days passed, and hope faded.

“Everybody wanted to believe they were alive,” Fazande said. “But I knew they were gone. I’m a realist.”

When he tried to reach their home about a week later, rescue workers turned him away but told him two corpses were found there. On Tuesday, he revisited the house, where the door had been broken down and a hole cut in the ceiling, presumably to retrieve the bodies. A red “Send Help” sign was still in the window.

A makeshift flag
Fazande climbed into the attic and demonstrated how his father tied a white rag to a piece of molding and pushed it through a hole in the roof as a distress signal. He found the makeshift flag, along with the couple’s will and other papers wrapped in plastic in the attic, just where his mother said they would be.

A section of plywood was stained with bodily fluid — the spot where he believes his mother died. “If she went first, I know he was over here crying,” he said.

Two months after the storm, the morgue has yet to produce their bodies. The wait is excruciating. “I dream about them all the time,” Fazande said. “It’s a big mess.”

Likewise, Swift said after the grisly find on Oct. 10 at Aunt Nettie’s house, her cousin ran out of the home screaming for help. Over her protests, authorities insisted on taking the remains to the morgue to be identified. The family has not heard anything since.

“My aunt,” Swift said, “is still just a number.”