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Hurricane Katrina

Silence from New Orleans, as daughter waits for word

By JENNIFER LIBERTO, Times Staff Writer
Published September 1, 2005

Jennifer Liberto hasn't heard from her father, Frank Liberto, since Monday. His wife and youngest daughter evacuated; he stayed behind in New Orleans.

Update: Frank Liberto, father of St. Petersburg Times staff writer Jennifer Liberto, is alive and well and made contact with his family Thursday morning. Frank Liberto was rescued by boat from the second floor of their home in New Orleans' flooded Lakeview neighborhood on Wednesday afternoon. He was transferred overnight to the Houston Astrodome, where he called his son in Fort Lauderdale to let him know he was okay.

The last time I talked to my dad, he didn't seem too perturbed. He was a little tired and amused that my brother and I had taken turns calling him in New Orleans from our Florida homes all morning.

At 8 a.m. Monday, I could hear the hurricane creeping up on his end of the phone. A tree limb that had threatened our roof for years was pounding a loud hole into my youngest sister's room. A neighbor's tree had fallen in our front yard.

"Luckily it missed your sister's car," he chuckled.

That was hours before the levee hemorrhaged.

Before 20 feet of water consumed my high school, my neighborhood coffeeshop - and, I can only assume, my family home.

I've heard nothing from my dad since.

His name is Frank Liberto. He's 60. A chubby Italian guy with a shiny bald head and graying mustache.

He's one of the crazies who didn't leave.

Not sick or crippled or without a car. Struggling financially, but not impoverished.

As I comb pictures of devastated New Orleans and search Internet message boards for the slightest clue of his whereabouts, I keep thinking: "If he ever makes it out alive, I'm going to kill him."

We had all pleaded with him to leave. This was the big one. The one we never really talked about among ourselves. Before Katrina, we chuckled with tourists who questioned our topography, calming their nerves with drive-through daiquiri shops.

Most of my family is fine and currently traveling from Houston to Fort Worth. My mom was a child when hurricanes Betsy and Camille tore up her home and neighborhood, souring an economy that left her family of eight struggling for years.

My dad is originally from Shreveport. But after college at Loyola University in the late 1960s, he turned into a typical New Orleans character. Laid back, never in a hurry, turns everything into lunch. He doesn't give directions to lost tourists but instead walks them where they need to go.

He loves New Orleans. He lives to watch the sun set on Lake Pontchartrain during afternoon walks on the levee. Every morning, he goes to Mass at St. Dominic's church, then has coffee with the "old codgers," an octogenarian clique that forgives his youth. He likes to tell us their tales of growing up in New Orleans.

Even when the city regularly chewed him up, he rarely thought about leaving. We spent nearly all of our most exotic family vacations in Destin, a mere five hours away. He evacuated with us once in the 1980s and swore he'd never do it again.

That's only part of the reason he stayed. The rest is more complicated, as I'm sure it is for many who ignored the evacuation order.

Our house in Lakeview is the only thing of value my parents ever owned. Long ago, it was a symbol of prosperity.

They bought the two-story house in the mid 1980s while my dad was a successful private attorney, mostly defending people injured on oil rigs. The house cost a fortune at the time, about $190,000. It had four large bedrooms and nice built-in touches like floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, a dishwasher and a refrigerator that blended with custom-made cabinets, and winding closets that sprawled out like small caves - perfect entertainment for my younger brother, two sisters and me.

As the years went by, New Orleans' economy changed. Lawyers grew more plentiful, while the oil and gas industry picked up and moved back to Texas.

My dad lost work. His friends lost jobs.

The gap between the rich and the poor grew, along with crime. My dad's Uncle Benny, a distant relation, was murdered trying to stop a robbery uptown. A family friend was shot in the French Quarter on his morning jog.

Eventually, tourism and hospitality turned into the city's lifeblood.

My dad refused to give up law.

But he moved his office to the house, and spent his growing free time crashing conventions downtown, pocketing free squeezy balls and laser pointers with company logos. He also bought weird things in bulk at the burgeoning number of dollar stores that infiltrated the city: a dozen hockey sticks and at least 10 fuzzy bunny ear headbands.

Meanwhile, New Orleans aged. People left the city. Behind the Mardi Gras masks and charming oak trees were structural problems, like aging pumps, levees and flood walls.

The city always flooded some, but people survived. We lost a car during a flood in 1995 - that was the worst we knew.

Over the years, buckets took up permanent residence in the kitchen to catch the rain that leaked from the roof.

Then, one day a few years ago, my parents gambled. The real estate market had so improved that even tiny houses were selling for more than what it cost to buy ours.

My parents could hardly make the tax payments, let alone pay the insurance. And it was costing money to send my mother to nursing school, a last-ditch attempt to bring in more income.

So, they dropped the insurance policy.

I'm sure that is what was streaming through my dad's head last Saturday, as my mother and sister packed up the car. He pretended not to care as he headed downtown to what was probably the city's last convention.

As the hurricane strengthened, I tried all weekend to reason with him. He wouldn't budge.

Now, he is missing. The house stood less than a half mile from the levee break that has poured Lake Pontchartrain into downtown New Orleans.

I see the aerial shots of rooftops peeking through floodwater and wonder if one is mine.

With cell phones completely down, family and friends have communicated through text-messaging.

"Flooded and scared on the third floor," wrote my sister's friend Al who took refuge at Kenner Regional Hospital near the airport. "Everybody's crying and panicking."

"In Dallas, so safe, where r yours," wrote my best friend, Leigh, asking about my family.

But there are no messages from New Orleans.

I spent all day Tuesday dialing busy numbers, trying to get my dad on rescue lists.

Every picture and story I see punches me in the stomach and leaves me unable to breathe.

I can't eat. I keep thinking of all the hungry, thirsty people wandering around my hometown, and wondering if my father is among them.

We all can't help but think of the dollar-store rafts that he kept stashed in drawers and closets for years.

Like everyone else with family missing in New Orleans, I can only hope. And pray.

Jennifer Liberto grew up in New Orleans. She covers federal courts for the Times in Tampa.

[Last modified September 1, 2005, 18:03:12]

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