At Nursing Home, Katrina Dealt Only the First Blow

By Anne Hull and Doug Struck
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, September 23, 2005

NEW ORLEANS -- As Hurricane Katrina swirled closer, the elderly nuns who were among the patients at Lafon Nursing Home of the Holy Family packed their medicine and emergency supplies in preparation for evacuation. A sign-out sheet at the nursing home's front desk recorded their departures on the morning of Aug. 27. Sister Paulette signed out at 7:24 a.m., Sister DeSalle at 7:25, Sister Trahan at 7:27, Sisters Jolivete and Miriam at 7:30 and Sister Brinkley at 7:32.

Across the street, 60 more nuns of the Sisters of the Holy Family were also evacuating the convent where they lived, under instructions from their mother superior.

But at Lafon, the nursing home run by the order, more than 100 other elderly patients stayed where they were. Sister Augustine McDaniel, the nursing home's administrator, had weathered other hurricanes in her 68 years and decided that she -- and the patients in her care -- would tough this one out, too.

Faced with moving her fragile patients on jammed roadways, or keeping them at Lafon, a sturdy, low brick building that had survived other hurricanes, McDaniel decided her staff and patients would be better off staying. If things got rough, she would move everyone to the second floor.

Taped under receptionist Gloria Williams's desk were "urgent" instructions to recite in case of a hurricane: "Our Father who art in heaven, through the powerful intercession of Lady of Prompt Succor spare us from the harm during the hurricane season."

No prayer could stop Katrina's rushing waters or ease the fatal heat that followed. When rescue workers finally arrived five days later, bodies were found wrapped in bedsheets in the chapel. Originally told 14 had died, officials eventually recovered 22 corpses.

Three weeks later, Lafon is being investigated by Louisiana's attorney general, along with other nursing homes where people died after a failure to evacuate. The state has charged the owners of one home -- St. Rita's -- with 34 counts of negligent homicide after corpses were found floating in brown storm water. Of about 60 nursing homes affected by Katrina, only 21 evacuated before the storm, according to a list compiled by the Louisiana Nursing Home Association.

McDaniel and the other nuns on the staff have been advised by their attorney not to talk about the ordeal. The story of what happened at this New Orleans nursing home -- pieced together from dozens of interviews with employees and patients, family members of patients, and rescuers -- defies easy characterization.

Those stranded inside watched McDaniel and her staff perform with desperate heroics. When countless rescuers were told of the dire situation inside Lafon and none came to help, employees resorted to looting a Family Dollar for peroxide, alcohol wipes and clothes. A savior finally appeared in a red Ford Explorer towing a boat.

But for children and other family members who had entrusted their parents and elderly relatives to the Sisters of the Holy Family, there is confusion and anger. "I know it's a herculean effort to evacuate people from a nursing home," said Judith Heikes, who finally located her 91-year-old mother in Nashville after she was evacuated. "It would have been traumatic on patients. But they made too conservative of a judgment. And that is putting the best spin on it."

Berita Leonard still has not located her 85-year-old father. "I tried to please my father in every way," says Leonard. "He loved the nuns. But if he is deceased, he did not deserve to die this way."

Hunkering Down

Sister Augustine McDaniel ran a tight ship. She wasn't shy about lecturing employees who showed signs of sloppiness, asking one delinquent staffer to write an essay about why she wanted to keep her job. A stocky woman with graying hair, McDaniel was a constant figure in the hallways, greeting visiting family members by name. Lafon had a waiting list and a rich history in New Orleans, run by an order of black nuns, Sisters of the Holy Family.

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