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What Really Happened at St. Rita's?

By Laura Parker, USA TODAY


November 28, 2005

Doug Mills/The New York Times

New details from officials and survivors paint a more complete picture of what happened after Katrina struck St. Rita's. 

What passes for high ground in Louisiana's southeastern marshlands are the patches of terra firma that did not flood during Hurricane Betsy in 1965. 

St. Rita's Nursing Home was built 20 years ago on one of those patches. That figured prominently in the decision by Sal and Mabel Mangano, St. Rita's owners, to ride out Hurricane Katrina in their one-story brick building rather than follow an order by St. Bernard Parish to evacuate the home's 60 residents. The Manganos even invited their relatives, staffers and the staff's relatives to use St. Rita's as a shelter, and nearly 30 people accepted the offer.

For a few moments after Katrina barreled through on the morning of Aug. 29, it seemed the Manganos had made the right decision: The parking lot was dry, the roof intact. Then disaster struck. When Sal Mangano and several other men stepped outside to inspect the grounds, they heard a low rumbling sound. A wall of water appeared, rolling toward them. The men raced back inside and fortified the doors and windows. The water hit the building, rose up the sides and then burst inside. 

"We were like in a sinking ship," says Gene Alonzo, a retired fisherman who stayed at St. Rita's to be with his disabled brother, Carlos, a resident. "I never did see water come up like that."

Within 20 minutes, the water inside rose almost to the ceiling and nearly three dozen residents were drowning, some in their beds, in one of the signature scenes of horror wrought by Katrina.

Alonzo's account of the ordeal, together with new details from government officials, survivors and the Manganos' attorney, James Cobb, paint the most complete picture so far of what happened at St. Rita's before and after Katrina struck - and shed light on why the Manganos did not evacuate. 

Their descriptions also debunk some of the myths that grew out of the chaotic aftermath of the hurricane, including reports that the Manganos abandoned their nursing home during rescue efforts there.

The revelations come at a time when it's also becoming clear that loopholes in state evacuation laws could make prosecuting the Manganos more complicated than it appeared on Sept. 13, when they were charged with 34 counts of negligent homicide. 

Thirteen weeks after Katrina, the Manganos are the only ones to be criminally charged in Louisiana Attorney General Charles Foti's probe of more than 200 Katrina-related deaths at four New Orleans-area hospitals and 13 nursing homes.

Among the details to emerge since St. Rita's flooded:

.There were 35 victims at the scene, not 34. On Sept. 30, a woman's body, with a feeding tube attached, was found outside the home of the Manganos' son, Sal, which is behind St. Rita's. St. Bernard Parish coroner Bryan Bertucci says he has not yet identified her.

Kris Wartelle, Foti's spokeswoman, says Foti has not decided whether to add a 35th count to the Manganos' charges. Each count carries a maximum prison sentence of five years.

.Five of the 25 residents who were rescued died shortly afterward. It's unclear how the trauma of the rescue affected the health of those residents, but Wartelle says the five deaths have been added to Foti's ongoing probe of St. Rita's.

Jodi Hanson, one of nearly 60 relatives of St. Rita's residents who sought to locate the survivors by trading information through a private Internet chat room, says three men and two women died by Oct. 3. She declined to identify them, citing privacy concerns.

.Contrary to widespread reports in the media, the Manganos did not abandon St. Rita's during the flooding.

Nor did they seal the fate of their elderly residents by strapping them to their beds before leaving, as was widely reported. They worked alongside their staff and a few Good Samaritans during the frantic rescue effort, according to Cobb, Alonzo and other witnesses. Bertucci says none of the bodies recovered from St. Rita's was strapped to a bed or a wheelchair.

The Manganos are living in Louisiana, but Cobb declines to say where. "I'm concerned for their safety," he says. "These are very emotional issues still."

The criminal case against the Manganos concerns whether their decision not to evacuate St. Rita's in the face of a monster storm amounted to willful negligence.

Forecasters had predicted a 21-foot storm surge in St. Bernard Parish that would last more than six hours. The parish council ordered a mandatory evacuation on Aug. 28, the day before Katrina hit, and St. Rita's was the only one of the five nursing homes in the parish that did not comply -- facts that would seem to help prosecutors in the Manganos' case.

The case has not been scheduled for trial because the parish court system, which was flooded by Katrina, is only partially operating and not yet able to handle a complex trial, Wartelle says.

Victims' relatives feel betrayed 

When the case is tried, Cobb says, the Manganos' defense will aim to exploit loopholes in Louisiana law regarding nursing homes and evacuations. 

State law requires licensed nursing homes to file evacuation plans with the local government. But the law does not require the plans to be followed during an emergency, and it does not require nursing home operators to follow mandatory evacuation orders.

"The law is silent on those two issues," says Bob Johannessen, spokesman for the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals, a fact that would appear to help the Manganos' defense.

Likewise, Louisiana's requirement that nursing homes have an evacuation plan does not require an actual evacuation. The law allows nursing homes to "evacuate" to "a safe place" within the home.

St. Rita's evacuation plan called for residents to be taken to Baton Rouge or Lafayette in two stages, with the most infirm residents to go 48 to 72 hours before a hurricane, and the rest to go 24 to 48 hours before a storm. Despite several conversations before the hurricane with Bertucci, other parish officials and relatives of residents about evacuating, the Manganos did not follow their written plan.

Some family members of St. Rita's victims regard that decision as a betrayal of trust.

Anna Cousins, whose mother-in-law, Adele Cousins, 81, died at St. Rita's, is involved in one of three wrongful-death lawsuits that victims' families have filed against the Manganos. 

The Cousins family's lawsuit says the Manganos and St. Rita's staff members "led the family to believe" that Adele would be evacuated in such situations. Cousins says family members would have moved Adele out of the storm's path themselves if they had known about the Manganos' decision earlier.

Cousins says that by the time the Manganos informed her they intended to stay, she was complying with St. Bernard's mandatory evacuation order and was stuck in traffic on Interstate 10, headed west to Houston. "You don't take the lives of people and make that decision, and not even tell us, 'We're not going anywhere, come pick up your parents,' " Cousins says. "They didn't give us the opportunity. I can't get past that."

Steve Gallodoro, a St. Bernard fire official whose 82-year-old partially paralyzed father, Tufanio, drowned in his bed, says that most people in the parish who did not evacuate "did so by choice. The people at St. Rita's had no choice."

He says the Manganos assured him three days before Katrina that they planned to evacuate to Baton Rouge or Lafayette. "I was comfortable with that," he says. "My father had special needs. We would not have been able to transport him. I told my sister that he would be in better hands with them."

Cobb, the Manganos' attorney, says an evacuation would have killed several frail residents. At the time, the Manganos thought that staying in place and saving those lives was the better option, he says.

Relatives of the drowned residents see no wrenching dilemma.

"Do you risk two or three lives for 60 lives?" asks Bernard Reyes, Anna Cousins' brother-in-law.

Bertucci says he phoned St. Rita's about 2 p.m. on Aug. 28 and offered the Manganos buses. "I told them I had two buses and two drivers to take them anywhere," he says. "We were very alarmed by the size and intensity of the storm."

Mabel Mangano turned down the offer. "She asked me, 'Do you think they'll be mad?' " Bertucci says. He says he assumed she was referring to the parish council.

Mabel Mangano does not remember the conversation that way, Cobb says. The lawyer says the offer of buses "never happened."

To win a conviction, Cobb says, prosecutors must prove that the Manganos willfully and wantonly put St. Rita's residents at risk.

"How does someone act willfully with disregard for the safety of others when you put yourself, your grandchildren, nieces and nephews in the same exact spot?" he asks.

'Like Niagara Falls' 

Scientists are still analyzing why St. Bernard flooded so severely. The best guess is that the parish was hit with a storm surge from Lake Borgne, which is open to the Gulf of Mexico, and the breaching of three of the four levees that protect the parish from the sea.

Alonzo recalls the floodwaters flowing from the direction of the lake, a few miles north of St. Rita's.

Trishka Stevens, Jodi Hanson's grandmother, says that when the water burst into the building, it cascaded through air-conditioning vents "like Niagara Falls." Stevens, 75, who has not walked in five years, was in her bed in Room 407 as water rose around her.

"It was up to my chin," she says.

In the pandemonium that followed, nurses and aides waded and then swam through the halls, unhooking the straps that held the wheelchair-bound upright and pushing them onto mattresses. They then shoved the mattresses outside so the evacuees could be taken to higher ground by boat.

Alonzo, 55, says he put his 52-year-old brother onto a mattress, then grabbed Carlos' roommate, Harold Kurz. Alonzo recounts the frantic effort by nurses and others to save as many as possible: 

"You can't get out a door, so they're kicking out windows to float the residents out on mattresses to put them on the roof. In every room, people were hollering. They were screaming like somebody was murdering them (and) ... for God to help them. It was a horror scene."

Stevens was saved by Steve Snyder, 29, an offshore oil rig worker who had motored past St. Rita's in a boat while fleeing his own flooded house nearby. By then, Snyder says, rescuers at St. Rita's were chopping holes in the roof to pull out residents who were floating just below the ceiling.

Snyder says he and his brother-in-law swam from room to room, searching for survivors. They gave up, he says, when "we just didn't hear no more screaming, no more people calling for help."

Trauma after the rescue 

For the survivors, the trauma continued. They were moved by boat to a school, then to a shelter at St. Bernard High School and then to a staging area in Algiers, 15 miles up the Mississippi River.

Stevens ended up at the New Orleans airport and was flown to Houston, where she was hospitalized with chest pains. Doctors initially thought she'd had a heart attack, but later found that she had seven broken ribs from being dropped as rescuers at St. Rita's had pushed her onto a boat. She was moved twice more, landing finally at a nursing home in Ocala, Fla., near her daughter's home.

The relatives of St. Rita's residents found each other on a New Orleans website and set up a private chat room to trade information. They have located St. Rita's survivors across the South.

To help survivors, Jodi Hanson set up a charity called St. Rita's Angels. "Winter is coming. They don't have sweaters or coats. Nursing homes don't provide those," she says

Alonzo returned to St. Rita's a month after Katrina to get belongings from his ruined car. He calls the place haunted, and says he will never go back. 

"Can you imagine being in your wheelchair ... and that water came up over your head? I guess that's why people are so mad."

He tears up, and then says quietly he wasn't strong enough to hold onto both his brother and Kurz. "You can't swim with two people. I had to let Harold go. I still think about that when I fall asleep." 

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