For Many Casualties, No Who, How or When

Hurricane survivor Louise Samuels, 82, talks about her husband, Grady, who one family member said
Hurricane survivor Louise Samuels, 82, talks about her husband, Grady, who one family member said "grieved himself to death." (By Nikki Kahn -- The Washington Post)
By Sue Anne Pressley and Jacqueline L. Salmon
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Cynthia du Faur telephoned her twin sister in Chicago at 2:15 a.m. on Aug. 30 and told her in a small, surprised voice that water was rising fast inside their New Orleans home.

It was pitch black, she said, and the city around her was paralyzed, and she was alone with their nine dogs and cats. She could not reach the ladder in the basement, and the attic was nailed shut. Suddenly, she said, almost as an aside, "I think we're going to die."

"Her very last words, which haunt me, were 'Let me go try to find some plywood. Okay, bye.' She was looking for something to float on," said her sister, Brenda du Faur, 46. "I can't imagine the slow, rising death that was coming."

Du Faur can't be certain her sister is dead, but like many others who haven't heard from loved ones in this stricken region, she is already grieving. The people who died during Katrina and its aftermath are, two weeks later, still largely unidentified and unknown. No one can say yet how many perished, who they were, how and when they died. Communications and recovery problems -- and a heavy cloak of secrecy -- have compounded the mystery. Officials have been told not to pass on any information. For now, and for the indefinite future, the victims of Katrina remain the dead without a roster.

What is known about them comes not from official confirmation but from scattered sources -- a small-town funeral home director who knows everyone, a frantic sister who posted her last hopes on a missing-persons hotline. It is common knowledge, for example, in east Biloxi that "Miss Odessa" Hurley, 90, drowned alone in her modest house -- although officials have not yet confirmed her death.

Rosalie Guidry Daste, 100, survived five days trapped on the suffocating second-floor of a flooded New Orleans nursing home, only to die soon after she was rescued and airlifted to a hospital. The family of Grady Samuels Sr., 82, is convinced he "grieved himself to death," his daughter said.

Sgt. Paul Accardo, 36, a public affairs officer for the New Orleans Police Department, shot himself in the mouth as he sat in his patrol car, apparently anguished at what was happening to his city. Willie Williams, 25, as big and strong as a football player, apparently thought he could withstand the fury of the storm.

And in her heart, if not on paper, Brenda du Faur senses that she lost her sister in the floodwaters that engulfed their home.

At the Nursing Home

As the monstrous hurricane bore down on the Gulf Coast, the nursing staff at Lafon Nursing Home of the Holy Family told family members that Rosalie Daste was too feeble to evacuate from the east New Orleans facility for the elderly poor.

Daste and other patients who stayed behind were moved to the second floor for safety, and worried family members said they were assured that a generator and plenty of supplies were on hand.

But the day after the storm, a levee on a canal to the west of the nursing home collapsed, and water began swirling into the first floor of the facility. The occupants were trapped inside.

Daste's family is not sure what happened after that, but four days passed before rescuers reached the nursing home. By the time Daste was airlifted, first to a makeshift facility at the New Orleans airport, then to a Monroe, La., hospital, "she was dying," said Kevan Cullins, her great-grandson. She was severely dehydrated and had a bacterial infection, her kidneys were failing and her lungs were filled with fluid. Before her family could reach her, he said, she was dead.

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