September 14, 2005

Louisiana towns rebound, death toll rises

By Kieran Murray

NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) - Three Louisiana towns were set to
allow residents to come home on Wednesday for the first time
since Hurricane Katrina struck, while the mayor of New Orleans
said he hoped some of the thousands driven from his city could
be resettled there as early as next week.

The developments came as the death toll from the
third-deadliest hurricane in U.S. history rose to 648 and
criminal charges were filed against the operators of a nursing
home where 34 patients died after they were trapped by the
storm's floodwaters.

The cities of Gretna, Westwego and Lafitte, all suburbs of
New Orleans, told residents they could come back beginning at
daybreak because drinking water, electricity and sewer service
had been restored.

The cities are in an area that suffered damage but not the
kind of severe flooding that drove most of New Orleans' 450,000
residents out of their city.

In New Orleans bodies were still being recovered and many
neighborhoods remained flooded by water that surged through
broken levees after the August 29 storm hit.

"New Orleans is coming back. We are bringing its culture
back, we are bringing its music back. I am tired of hearing
these helicopters. I want to hear some jazz," Mayor Ray Nagin
said on Tuesday.

He said he hoped thousands of residents could return, as
soon as next Monday, to the French Quarter, which remained high
and dry during the disaster, the central business district and
two other neighborhoods.

Whether that happens, he said, will depend on tests being
done on the flood residue to make sure there is no health
hazard. The water mixed with gasoline, chemicals, sewage and
other matter but health officials have said there is no sign so
far that it led to a spread of infectious diseases.

It was obvious from the destruction in other neighborhoods
that it would be months before many houses could be repaired or

Ashley Attaway and her family went looking on Tuesday for
six homes they own in the city, most of them rental properties.
One in the French Quarter was sound but another had been under
water and suffered heavy damage.


"It's devastating. This is the most awful experience of our
lives," she said, adding that she feared the other four houses
were destroyed.

In St. Bernard Parish east of New Orleans, raked by the
storm's worst wind and walls of water, officials believe most
of the town's 27,600 houses will have to be bulldozed and it
may be six months before anyone can return, the New Orleans
Times-Picayune reported.

The storm likely will be the costliest natural disaster in
American history, with estimates ranging from $100 billion to
$200 billion. The U.S. Congress has approved $62.3 billion so
far for relief.

The death toll in the storm that displaced 1 million people
rose to 423 in Louisiana. Mississippi had 218 deaths and there
were seven in Florida.

Louisiana Attorney General Charles Foti announced that the
owners of a nursing home in St. Bernard Parish had been
arrested and charged with 34 counts of negligent homicide.

"Thirty-four people drowned in a nursing home when it
should have been evacuated. I cannot say it any plainer than
that," Foti said.

The owners, Mable and Salvador Mangano, turned down an
offer from local officials to take the patients out by bus, and
did not bother to call in an ambulance service with which they
had a contract, he said.

The victims were found in an advanced state of
decomposition, Foti said, and it is presumed they drowned when
the storm hit.

James Cobb, a lawyer for the owners, said they did all they
could and had told family members that they could remove the
patients if they wanted.

"What people have to understand is, you're presented with a
horrible choice," he said. "You take people who are on feeder
tubes, who are on oxygen, who are on medications and you put
them on a bus to go 70 miles in 12 hours? People are going to
die, people are going to die, we know that."

The nursing home tragedy had been described more than a
week ago by Aaron Broussard, president of Jefferson Parish, who
told a national television audience how an emergency official
busy fighting the flood had lost his mother.

"She called him and said, 'Are you coming, son, is somebody
coming?' And he said, 'Yeah mama, somebody's coming to get ya,
somebody's coming to get ya on Tuesday, somebody's coming to
get ya on Wednesday' ... and she drowned Friday night," he
said, breaking into tears during a September 4 interview on


In another development, the owners of a New Orleans
hospital where 44 bodies were found said they were those of
critically ill patients who died in stifling heat after power
was cut to the flooded building but before it could be

Tenet Healthcare Corp. said no one still alive was left
behind at Memorial Medical Center in New Orleans when help
finally came.

"During more than four days with poor sanitation, without
power, air-conditioning and running water, and with
temperatures in the building approaching 110 degrees (43 C),
some patients simply did not survive despite the heroic efforts
of our physicians and nurses. We believe that most were very
sick adult patients," the company said in a statement.

The Louisiana attorney general said he intended to
investigate that case as well.

At the White House, President George W. Bush said he took
responsibility for the federal government's failures in
responding to the storm and promised to find out what went

Federal Emergency Management Agency head Michael Brown
resigned on Monday. A political ally of Bush with little
hands-on experience in dealing with disasters, he was widely
criticized for his performance.

The White House said Bush would address the nation from
Louisiana on Thursday evening. Facing heavy criticism and the
lowest approval ratings of his presidency, Bush has visited the
Gulf coast three times in the past two weeks, most recently
touring New Orleans in a truck.