For Many Casualties, No Who, How or When

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.

At Daste's funeral Saturday in Baton Rouge, La., the family chose to celebrate her long life rather than to dwell on the details of her death. They painted a portrait of a sturdy woman who worked until her early nineties, and who survived financial ruin in the Depression, early widowhood and the deaths of three of her four children. They laughed as they recalled her famous penny-pinching ways, how she would always tell her children and grandchildren, "You watch your pennies and nickels, and when they turn into dollars, they'll watch themselves." She and her husband, who died in 1957, ran a small grocery and accumulated some property.

"She saved tissue paper and would cut it up and use it for napkins," Cullins recalled fondly. "Grandma didn't throw anything away."

On the Beat

For Paul Accardo, watching the hurricane rip apart his home town amid chaos, looting and murder was apparently more than he could bear.

After six days of helping to evacuate hundreds from the drowning city, of trying to aid thousands at the Louisiana Superdome -- and watching some of them die -- Accardo shot himself to death on Sept. 3.

"To see people dying, no food, no water, it took a toll on him," said his boss, Capt. Marlon DeFillo.

Accardo, who had been married for about three years, was often the public face of the city police department on local television newscasts. A clean-cut man with a winning smile and a soft-spoken manner, he was in the forefront of a department trying to improve its image.

But during the hurricane, the strait-laced cop who had spent the past five years working as a public affairs officer suddenly found himself on the front lines. Like other New Orleans police officers, he lost his home to Katrina and found himself working 20-hour days, pulling people from floodwaters and battling the looters who swarmed over portions of the city. The kind of guy who carried pet food in his car to feed stray animals, Accardo was overwhelmed by the suffering he saw, DeFillo said.

After working until 2 a.m. Saturday, Accardo slept for two hours and then got up at 4 a.m. to return to work. He looked so exhausted that DeFillo told him to go back to sleep.

"That's the last we saw of him," DeFillo said.

Accardo drove west and stopped in Luling, La., about 25 miles away, where he parked his car and ended his life.

At Home

Odessa Hurley, 90, was a familiar figure, walking along the streets of Biloxi during the daylight hours, passing out religious tracts and gathering treasures in the bag she always carried.

"She had sneakers on a mile too big for her, and big white socks pulled up to her knees," said Cleo Meaut, 74, a longtime church friend. "She wasn't what you called poor, but she looked poor. She gave all her money to charity. She would send money off to these missionaries to help them out, and when I say money I mean a good bit of money."

According to three townspeople, she lived all her life in Biloxi, for decades in the same small house without air conditioning, television or other creature comforts. She outlived two husbands. Her life revolved around day-long walks -- "practically all over Biloxi," Meaut said -- and daily services at St. Louis Catholic Church.

"She told me one Saturday night at church, 'I hope God gives me 10 more years because I'm not finished with my work here on Earth, and I'm trying to buy my way into heaven,' " Meaut said. "Father was standing there and he said, 'Oh, Miss Odessa, you know you can't buy your way into heaven -- you have to pray your way in.' And she just laughed."

Hurley refused to leave her home when neighbors were evacuating ahead of the storm. She had survived plenty of storms, she said. But when Meaut returned to find her own house destroyed, her younger son gave her the bad news. "He said, 'You know, they found Miss Odessa drowned.' "

Since then, Meaut has said many prayers for her old friend. But she knows Miss Odessa probably did okay on her own: "She paid her way into heaven -- you can bet your boots on that."

Staying in New Orleans

Willie Williams had wanted to be a football player -- and he still looked like one -- but things had not quite turned out the way he wanted. The father of five children under 6, he was a 10th-grade dropout and a laborer whose last job had been in roofing when he decided not to leave his native New Orleans for the hurricane.

"They was going to ride it out like a lot of people always did," said his cousin, Pam Williams, 35, who evacuated with her three children and who described his life and death from Houston, where she was relocating.

It may have been a fatal choice. Indirectly through a police officer friend in New Orleans, Williams learned that her cousin's body had been recovered after the storm, that it was seen tied to a tree by the river to keep it from floating away -- a practice searchers employed in the first chaotic days. His girlfriend, and the mother of his two youngest children, apparently is missing. There is no word on the children.

Williams said she does not know how her cousin died. "He knew how to swim pretty good," she said. "He was a survivor."

He also was the family peacemaker, she said.

"He'd see people getting into fights and he would break it up," she said. "He would tell them just to compromise with each other."

In the Shelter

As Grady Samuels Sr. sat in an evacuation shelter in Baton Rouge, he could not stop watching the images of hurt and crying children on television. The elderly man, known as "Grandpa Grady" back in his River Ridge, La., neighborhood, was sickened by the suffering the disaster had brought.

"He was saying, 'Ya'll get those children,' " said Rosie Jackson, 35, one of his many grandchildren. To calm him, family members lied and reassured him that they would rescue the children he was seeing on TV.

But as the days wore on, Samuels grew quieter. He stopped eating or speaking. A nurse stopped by to look at him but did not send him to a hospital, family members said. Last Thursday, he died in a single bed in a small room at the shelter that had been set aside for him and his wife, Louise.

"I think he grieved himself to death," said daughter Julia Samuels, 56.

It was a sad end to a life marked by hard work and a huge family. He and his wife had raised 11 children in the community about six miles west of New Orleans, and he saw himself as "the neighborhood granddad," said Fabiola Jack, 28, one of his great-grandchildren.

If police officers came looking for a neighborhood kid, Jack said, Samuels was likely to try to persuade them to give the youth a second chance. " 'That's my grandson,' he would say. 'Don't put him in jail. I'm going to talk to him first, and if he don't listen, then you can put him in jail.' "

On the Phone

Brenda du Faur wishes she had been more alert during her sister's last phone call, that she had had the presence of mind to suggest a way out, that she could have somehow transmitted the belief that Cynthia could survive a flood in the middle of a dark terrifying night.

"I was profoundly inadequate," Brenda du Faur said in an interview from Chicago, where she was away working as a racehorse walker. "Even though my sister was brilliant in her own person and the most creative thinker I've ever known, she had challenges and I was the one who was able to function a little better. All my life, I've saved my sister and I'm just tormented I didn't save her, and I could have."

Cynthia and Brenda du Faur shared what is called "a shotgun house" in mid-city New Orleans, each of them occupying one side of the dwelling; the dogs and cats, with such names as Petrouchka and Svetlana, ran back and forth between them.

Cynthia, a recovering alcoholic, was not working but had many deep interests, her sister said, including ballet, figure skating and old movies. Concerned about the poor, she was "a vehement critic of the establishment when they did wrong," Brenda said. She liked to dress in long, colorful sundresses and vintage shawls.

"She disdained a lot of the modern things she felt were inferior," her sister said.

Brenda said her twin often depended on her to take care of practical matters. She wishes she had cleared access to the attic, as she had long thought of doing. She wishes she had bought a small boat, assembled some kind of kit for emergencies. "All she needed was an inner tube," Brenda said, bursting into tears. "I never thought about a levee breaking."

Officials have had no news for her, as she waits in Chicago. But Brenda du Faur feels certain Cynthia would have gotten word to her if she survived.

"I still want to think she is alive," she said, "even though I know better."

Salmon reported from Baton Rouge. Staff writer Lisa Rein in Houston contributed to this report.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company