Nursing home owners charged as Louisiana death toll rises sharply to 423
September 13, 2005
NEW ORLEANS – In a day of reckoning across battered New Orleans, the owners of a nursing home were charged in the deaths of dozens of patients killed by Hurricane Katrina’s floodwaters, the death toll in Louisiana jumped to 423, and the mayor warned that the city is broke, unable to make its next payroll.Mayor C. Ray Nagin said the city was working “feverishly” with banking and federal officials to secure lines of credit through the end of the year.Amid the discouraging news, there were also clear signs of progress on many fronts: The New Orleans airport reopened to commercial flights, the port resumed operations, and the mayor said dry sections of the ravaged city – including the French Quarter and the central business district – could be reopened during the daytime as early as Monday, provided the Environmental Protection Agency finds the air and water are safe.”We’re out of nuclear-crisis mode and into normal, day-to-day crisis mode,” Nagin said.The death toll climbed by more than half in a single day to 423, including last week’s grisly discovery of 34 dead patients and staff members at St. Rita’s nursing home in the town of Chalmette in hard-hit St. Bernard Parish.Louisiana Attorney General Charles Foti charged the husband-and-wife owners of St. Rita’s with 34 counts of negligent homicide for not doing more to save their elderly patients. The case represents the first major prosecution to come out of the hurricane.”The pathetic thing in this case was that they were asked if they wanted to move them and they did not,” Foti said. “They were warned repeatedly that this storm was coming. In effect, their inaction resulted in the deaths of these people.”Salvador A. Mangano and his wife, Mable, surrendered and were jailed. Each count carries up to five years in prison.The attorney general said he is also investigating the discovery of more than 40 corpses at flooded-out Memorial Medical Center in New Orleans. A hospital official said the 106-degree heat inside the hospital as the patients waited for days to be evacuated probably contributed to the deaths.Even though both the airport and the waterfront were running at just a fraction of their capacity, the symbolic importance was not lost on a city that only days before had all but collapsed into looting and desperation.”From a commercial and psychological standpoint, this is five stars,” port president Gary LaGrange said between an outgoing barge shipment of auto parts to Alabama and the arrival of ship carrying coffee and wood from Argentina, Brazil and Mexico. “This shows the people of New Orleans their city is back in business.”Some experts had predicted it would take up to six months to get the port operating again after the hurricane damaged terminals and knocked out the electricity to operate cranes. A backlog of vessels had formed along the Mississippi River, waiting to load and unload cargo.The Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport, which escaped widespread damage from Katrina but was reserved for humanitarian flights in the storm’s aftermath, received its first commercial arrival, a mostly empty Northwest Airlines flight from Memphis, Tenn. About two dozen people, a mix of emergency workers and returning residents, were handed New Orleans lapel pins as they stepped into the terminal.”Welcome home,” airport director Roy Williams said as he greeted the passengers. “We’re glad to see you.”Among those returning to New Orleans was Steven Kischner, who said the mood aboard the plane was “eerie.””I’m anxious to get home to see what our house is going to look like,” said Sandy Rozales, who lives in an area of New Orleans near a levee break. Those on the flight appeared to be “preoccupied thinking about what they’d see when they get home and hoping that the worst wasn’t quite what they got.”Airport officials hope to be up to 60 flights a day within the week and back to full operation of 350 flights a day in six months. Before Katrina hit, the airport was on pace for a record 10 million passengers this year.During a tour of hurricane-stricken Mississippi, U.S. Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta pronounced Katrina the worst disaster for transportation in U.S. history and estimated the damage to bridges and highways – including broken and disjointed stretches of vital Interstate 10 – at $3 billion.Tuesday brought a sharp increase in the number of people who were given passes for the day to check on their businesses, save vital records and retrieve data from computers.”Many of the things that make this place special are still here,” said Rusty White, who was pleased looters had not completely emptied his bar, Bulldog, on the edge of the Garden District. “Everybody I talk to is coming back. They’re not even thinking of going someplace else.”Significant progress was reported by Army Corps of Engineers officials running the operation to pump out flooded areas of New Orleans and neighboring parishes.Col. Duane Gapinski estimated that half of the flooded area or less was still under water, and at the rate of 8 billion to 9 billion gallons a day, the city was on target to be almost completely drained by Oct. 8.The mayor said more than 40 pumping stations were operating in the city, including the city’s biggest pump. “That will change the world as we know it,” he said.Amid the encouraging signs from the streets, there were promises from the White House and the Federal Emergency Management Agency to learn from their mistakes and intensify efforts to help the victims.In Washington, President Bush said “I take responsibility” for the government’s failures in dealing with the hurricane, and he said the disaster raised questions about the nation’s ability to respond to natural disasters as well as terrorist attacks.”Are we capable of dealing with a severe attack? That’s a very important question and it’s in the national interest that we find out what went on so we can better respond,” the president said.The new acting director of FEMA, R. David Paulison, promised to get thousands of evacuees out of shelters and into temporary housing.”We’re going to move on and get them the help they need,” Paulison said in his first public comments since he was named to replace Michael Brown, who resigned under fire over the government’s sluggish response to the disaster.The updated Louisiana death toll came as Gov. Kathleen Blanco lashed out at the federal government, accusing it of moving too slowly in recovering the bodies. The dead “deserve more respect than they have received,” she said. “I am angry and outraged.”But Blanco’s outburst created yet another case of bureaucratic finger-pointing. FEMA spokesman David Passey said he did not understand what the governor was talking about because, he said, the state asked to take over body recovery last week.”The collection of bodies is not normally a FEMA responsibility,” Passey said.—Associated Press writers Erin McClam, Mary Foster and Lisa Meyer contributed to this report.