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
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."