Joan Pfarrer and her husband, Pat, both 74, stood in the sunlit safety of their daughter's home in Plano, Texas, remembering the first shock of their loss. Katrina's fury had destroyed their ranch home in Biloxi, Miss., leaving only a cement slab.
Just months away from their 50th wedding anniversary, the couple had nothing left but the few family photos they had grabbed before fleeing. When Pat returned from surveying the destruction, he put his arm around his wife and said, "Think about it this way, honey—you're my new June bride. It's just like we're starting out all over again."
The winds and waters of Katrina uprooted and upended the lives of almost 1 million Americans, many of them older people who thought they were set for life, only to see that life shattered.
In the months to come they will begin to deal with their losses and with the haunting memories of those hot, deadly days during and after the storm. Experts warn friends and family to be patient: "There should never be a time when we say that's enough, get back to normal, because normal may not ever be what it was before," says Sarah Selleck, a gerontologist at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston.
But for now, people are pushing aside the trauma to get on with their lives—cashing government relief checks, contacting insurers, registering for Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare and reconstructing their financial records. Resilient, thankful, highly focused, many are moving quickly and deliberately toward their uncertain futures.
"I Have To Start Somewhere"
Eddie Bourgeois, 71, a retired seaman from New Orleans, stood on the steps of the Washington, D.C., Armory shelter and mused, "I have to start somewhere, and it might as well be here."
Bourgeois, whose wife died earlier this year, lost his rented apartment and all his possessions to the Louisiana floodwaters. He's already signed up for a part-time job in Washington—"any job"—so he can start building a new nest with a lamp, a chair, a bed. He isn't sure if he will return to New Orleans, but he is certain of one thing: "It's in God's hands. He brought me this far, and I think he'll bring me a little further."
"We are looking at real survivors," says Carmel Bitondo Dyer, a gerontologist from Baylor College of Medicine who, in the first harrowing days after the storm, worked with some of the thousands of older people evacuated to Houston's Astrodome.
"Those who made it," she says, "are tough. I had 85-year-olds who told me they sat in the hot sun on [highway] I-10 for 48 hours."
Survivor Mom is Staying with her Son for Good
Delores Davis Mineo—a survivor with vivid memories of the roiling storm waters—is resting now in her son's home in Alexandria, Va., where she plans to stay for good. The 82-year-old had prudently left New Orleans for the safety of another house in Pass Christian, Miss., when the hurricane veered and slammed into the coast there. Suddenly, Mineo, who can't swim, was wading through waist-high water in the house, trying to get to the attic over the garage. With superhuman strength—"I really don't know how I did it," she says—Mineo opened the door between the house and the garage against the tremendous pressure of surging water.
"It was totally dark in the garage, and the water was rising so quickly," she recalls. "I felt around and finally found the pull for the attic stairs—but the stairs wouldn't come down all the way. Somehow I managed to pull myself up and get a footing on the stairs. I made it into the attic. The water inside got up past seven feet." When the water subsided, Mineo climbed down and stayed in the muddy house alone for three days, sleeping on a waterlogged mattress and eating peanut butter on crackers.
Later, she learned that her husband, safely housed in a nursing home, had died of natural causes, just as the storm hit. "It was so hard," she says, "knowing that he died alone, without me."
While the staff stayed on at her husband's facility, there is a public outcry over the abandonment of some helpless patients in hospitals and nursing homes. Rescuers found one New Orleans area nursing home