Saturday, August 29, 2009

Hurricane Katrina: Where Are My Loved Ones?

Monday, August 29, brings disturbing news. Hurricane Katrina has passed, but New Orleans is filling with water. Marcella and I watch the unfolding nightmare through the lens of the TV news reporters.

  • Desperate people on rooftops awaiting rescue
  • Loyal people refusing rescue if their cat or dog will be left behind
  • Maverick boat people ferrying the stranded from flooded homes to helicopter pick-up
  • Angry people shooting at the rescuers
  • Weary people trudging out of the city
  • Uniformed people forcing the weary back at gunpoint
  • Dedicated people keeping patients alive in sweltering hospital hallways
  • Critically ill people on blankets at the airport awaiting airlift
  • Crowded people on overpasses with no food, water, shelter, or toilets
  • Dead people in flooded beds, in lonely attics, on exposed sidewalks

A searing question burns in every evacuee's mind: What has happened to my loved ones who stayed in the city?

My brother Michael is one of those, though not by choice. In 2001, at age forty-nine, Michael suffered a severe stroke that left him physically and mentally impaired. Before Hurricane Katrina, he lived in a New Orleans nursing home with a prompt evacuation plan. But Michael did not evacuate with his nursing home. He suffered a seizure four days before the hurricane, was rushed to Touro Hospital, and was still hospitalized when Hurricane Katrina struck.

From Chattanooga, I telephone the staff of Michael's nursing home, evacuated to Baton Rouge with their residents. Naturally, they have no idea where Touro Hospital sent Michael. I check Touro Hospital's website and find a list of all the hospitals in the country where Touro patients have been sent. I call every one of them--even those with names like Women's and Children's Hospital. None has Michael. I list Michael as a missing patient and make my peace with the thought that death--should that be the case--will release my brother from his broken mind and body.

Meanwhile, my sister Maria, who has finally reached safety in Atlanta, asks a knowledgeable friend to conduct an Internet search for Michael. Three weeks later, Michael surfaces--at a nursing home in Houston.

The folks in Houston are delighted when I call. Michael arrived with exactly one piece of information--his name. The nursing home staff doesn't know whether his mental difficulties are caused by stroke, head injury, or psychosis. They are grateful for the details I can provide of Michael's medical history.

In October, my brother Danny and I, both newly returned to New Orleans, drive to Houston to see Michael. We have a favorable impression of the nursing home and Michael's adjustment. Until we can make other arrangements, Michael will stay in Houston. (As of August 2009, he's still there.)

P.S. Michael died in Houston on Wednesday, December 9, 2009. May he soar freely and joyfully in the world of spirit.

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