Louisiana authorities charged the owners of a New Orleans area nursing home with negligent homicide Tuesday after 34 patients perished in the facility in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
On a day in which Louisiana's death toll escalated to 423, state Attorney General Charles C. Foti Jr. said the owners of St. Rita's nursing home in St. Bernard Parish had been warned repeatedly by government officials and the news media that Katrina was coming, and also declined to evacuate the patients when asked if they wanted to do so. "In effect, their inaction resulted in the deaths of these patients," he said.
Foti announced the charges against the owners, Mable B. Mangano, 62, and Salvador A. Mangano, 65, at a late-afternoon news conference here. He said they had turned themselves in and had been booked on 34 counts of negligent homicide at the East Baton Rouge Parish jail.
Foti also said the state would investigate the deaths of 45 patients whose bodies were discovered Monday at Memorial Medical Center in New Orleans, as well as any other instances in which negligence may have led to the deaths of senior citizens or others unable to care for themselves.
"I'm going to look at every place in the affected area where patients died of unnatural causes," he said. A hospital or health care facility with "people that can't make a free choice because they are sick or unable to care for themselves has a duty to provide for their safety."
Bob Habans, an attorney for the Manganos, said they are "completely innocent." He said the couple and their children and grandchildren had attempted to evacuate residents, and had saved 50 people at the nursing home. "When all of the facts come out, everyone will know that they were heroes in this tragedy," he said.
As state officials issued an updated death toll, Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco (D) once again ripped into the Federal Emergency Management Agency for not moving more rapidly to collect the bodies of those who died in the storm and its aftermath.
Saying she had expressed her "absolute frustration" to federal authorities about the pace of recovering bodies, Blanco told reporters, "I cannot stand by while this vital operation is not being handled appropriately." She said the state signed a contract with a body-recovery company that had been in prolonged discussions with FEMA to do the same work.
Coast Guard Vice Adm. Thad W. Allen, the on-scene federal coordinator of disaster relief, responded in a written statement: "The state has always maintained direct control over the mortuary process following this tragedy. We are committed to a process that treats the victims of Katrina with dignity and respect and accomplishes the mission as quickly as possible. We will work with state officials on what they believe to be the best solution for their constituents."
Meanwhile, there were additional signs of recovery along the battered Gulf Coast. Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport resumed limited commercial service with the arrival of a Northwest Airlines flight that carried only about 30 passengers, including federal emergency relief officials. The Port of New Orleans was due to handle its first ship since before the hurricane hit on the morning of Aug. 29 -- well ahead of predictions that it could be out of business for months.
The overall death toll from the storm topped more than 640 on Tuesday, including 218 in Mississippi and a few deaths in Alabama. In Louisiana, the number of confirmed dead leapt from 279 to 423, and officials in New Orleans said many more bodies are likely to be found as waters recede an average of one city block a day and allow them to reach neighborhoods that experienced the most severe flooding. State mortuary workers said they were ramping up their manpower in New Orleans on Tuesday to remove more bodies.
A California National Guard unit looking for bodies rescued an unconscious and emaciated Edgar Hollingsworth, 74, from his house, and doctors said they expected him to survive, the Orange County Register reported.
As the work shifts from rescue and evacuation of the living toward the recovery of remains, the U.S. military has begun planning for withdrawing some of the 68,000 troops, 21 ships and dozens of aircraft from the Gulf Coast region, senior military officials said.
A large-scale troop pullout is already underway in Mississippi, with all of the several thousand out-of-state National Guard forces there scheduled to depart within eight to 10 days, Lt. Gen. Russel L. Honore, commander of Joint Task Force Katrina, said in an interview.
Military forces are expected to remain longer in Louisiana, but with the primary search effort in New Orleans expected to be completed by Wednesday, thousands of troops are expected to start departing within weeks, according to FEMA and military officials.
"It will be weeks, not months," when active-duty soldiers begin departing Louisiana, said Brig. Gen. Mark A. Graham, deputy commanding general of the 5th U.S. Army. About 7,200 active-duty troops, including 5,200 soldiers and 2,000 Marines, are engaged in relief work.
Honore said that as lifesaving missions such as search and rescue, providing food and water, and medical evacuation wind down, so will the military presence. He said some helicopter crews are already departing, including those from the 4th Infantry Division, which is preparing to return to Iraq.
In terms of providing security, Honore indicated that the city has an adequate law enforcement presence without federal troops. But Honore and other officials said the military is likely to stay to assist the city with planning, logistics and basic services until it can bring back a full contingent of municipal workers. "Until we've got these city workers back, we've got to keep the city running," he said.
One military unit winding up its mission Tuesday was a contingent of the 20th Special Forces Group, which has rescued nearly 8,000 New Orleans residents using inflated Zodiac boats since the flood hit. The unit, trained to partner closely with indigenous forces abroad, used those skills to help organize the search effort for the New Orleans Police Department.
Now, its officers say, the police are ready to work on their own. "We think they'll be on their feet in the next two days. They'll be able to handle it and we'll pull out," said Warrant Officer Bruce Erick, from a 20th Special Forces Group team based in Birmingham. The team helped the police carry out a systematic search plan.
As recovery efforts continued, FEMA's newly named acting director, R. David Paulison, spoke to reporters in Washington and said he will examine later the lessons learned from FEMA's failures.
"I can't deal with what happened in the last two weeks, but I can tell you, from this point forward, we are going to be focusing on the victims of this hurricane," he said. "But we've had a hurricane of unimaginable proportions, and we're going to deal with it. We're going to get those people out of shelters, and we're going to move and get them the help that they need."
At the same news conference, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff once again praised Michael D. Brown, who resigned as FEMA director on Monday after being yanked back to Washington amid withering reviews of the agency's performance the first week of the disaster. "As I said previously, I believe Mike Brown did everything that was within his capability to manage this crisis effectively," he said.
Tyson reported from New Orleans. Staff writers Dan Balz and Spencer S. Hsu in Washington contributed to this report.