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Gimme Shelter

Katrina Survivors Try to
Rebuild Their Lives

Five stories of storm victims on the road to recovery after their community was devastated

littered with 34 bodies, some in beds, others in their wheelchairs. Louisiana officials have charged the owners of that home, in Violet, with negligent homicide. The state attorney general has promised to investigate all cases—including the 45 bodies discovered in a New Orleans hospital. Some families say negligence may have caused the deaths of older patients and others unable to care for themselves.

Sen. Chuck Grassley, an Iowa Republican, has asked the federal government to investigate these deaths and those of other nursing home residents. "The abuse and neglect visited upon the vulnerable among us is shameful," he said in a statement. "The utter disrespect for the life and dignity of the frail and elderly is nearly incomprehensible."

In fact, even older people who had the grit and good luck to make it through the storm and into the shelters still had problems. In the Astrodome, where 25,000 people were temporarily housed, one evacuee noticed that older people without friends or family were often confused and wandering. The evacuee found some cardboard, printed "ELDERLY" in big, bold letters and held up his handmade sign.

"Older people began to gather around him, happy to have some kind of safe haven among the thousands and thousands of people," says Dyer, the Baylor doctor who volunteered at the shelter. "That man would talk to the older person, find out what they needed and go and snag a doctor or volunteer for them." Later, she says, teams of doctors, social workers and volunteers were organized to aid the older evacuees.

For those who made it through the storm, the evacuation and the shelters, the hardest work still lies ahead.

A 62-Year-Old Salesman Wants His Life Back

"I don't mean to sound ungrateful, but this is not my home, this is not where I want to live," says Rick Danenhower, 62, a time-share salesman from New Orleans who was flown to a Washington shelter. Danenhower plans to take any job he can find until he can go back to his native city.

"This is the hardest part," says Danenhower, who spent eight days alone upstairs in a rental house as water swirled in the rooms below him. "I want my real life back, but I don't have any idea what my second life will be like."

"We're going to put our life back together piece by piece," Joan Pfarrer, the "June bride," says resolutely. "You know, I've done this all before."

Indeed, in 1969, she was living in Biloxi with their four young children. Pat, a naval officer, was in Vietnam when Hurricane Camille barreled down on the coast. Joan and the children evacuated before the storm, returning days later to find their house destroyed.

"But we stayed and rebuilt on that same lot," she says with a laugh. "We were growing old in that house, and we never planned to leave. Now it's gone, too." The Pfarrers have leased a new apartment near their daughter and will decide in a year on a permanent home.

"I Felt Like Noah"

Others have already made that decision. Collins C. Phillips Jr., a 56-year-old disabled firefighter who now does carpentry work, fled New Orleans before the floodwaters hit, taking his wife, his mother, his son and the six grandchildren they are raising themselves.

"I felt like Noah," he says, smiling. "When I heard the storm warning, we started loading everything we could into my van and pickup truck. The neighbors were looking at us like we were crazy. But I knew there could be a huge flood, and I couldn't take any chances with these kids."

Now, the Phillips household is setting up again, in Atlanta, where his daughter lives. "I can't take these children back," he says. "No place there is safe enough." Later, he will go back to New Orleans to see what's left to salvage of the home he owned and loved.

"These kids are wonderful, but it's humbling to know they are looking to me for everything," he says, "when we've got so little to give."

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