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Hurricane Katrina

Victims' pain creates dilemmas for reporters

In the middle of a disaster, it's hard to know if agreeing to a desperate request is actually helping or hurting.

By CHRIS TISCH, Times Staff Writer
Published September 7, 2005


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NEW ORLEANS - When I met Jean DeCastro on Wednesday afternoon last week, she had no insulin and had already passed out twice. She said a third time would do her in.

Jean, 84, sat in a dusty warehouse awaiting evacuation from New Orleans, but she just wanted to go home.

She had been separated from her husband, Raymond, after the storm, but believed he was at their Bourbon Street apartment waiting for her.

Jean begged me for a ride. If she would die at home, she told me, at least she would die by her husband's side.

Something about Jean tugged at me. I pictured her hugging Raymond. I imagined the couple, who have been married for 27 years, sitting on their sofa holding hands. All I had to do was get her there and they could be together.

Jean's home was a little more than a mile away. Under normal circumstances, a two-minute trip.

"Can't you please take me?" she asked. "No one else will listen to me."

The brick warehouse was dirty and hot. Jean sat on a pile of wooden planks. Her white hair was matted with sweat. Look at my ankles, she said. They were swollen, purple.

I asked how she got there.

She said police had evacuated the couple from their apartment before the storm. Officers took them to the Superdome.

After the storm passed, Jean, a diabetic, felt sick and was taken to a hospital. She was released and the couple began walking back to their home. But Jean again felt ill. Raymond, 69, left her at a nearby hotel and went home to fetch shoes and dry clothes.

He never returned. The hotel evacuated the next day. Jean and others were taken to the warehouse to await transport to Baton Rouge.

That's when I came upon Jean. Her pleas for a ride home began to gnaw at me.

But a colleague reminded me of the harm that could come from granting her wish. What if she had a medical episode on the way? What if her husband wasn't there? What if her home was badly damaged but she demanded to be left there? What if she died from lack of food and water?

I looked at Jean and told her that I couldn't take her home, that I might do her more harm than good. Her eyes welled with tears and she shook her head.

She gave me their home and cell numbers and asked me to try calling her husband.

I left the area to do some more reporting, then returned and went to look for Jean. Other evacuees told me a medical crew had taken her to a nearby treatment area.

I saw her sitting in a chair, speaking to medics. I stood there for a good while watching her. And then I left without talking to her. For some reason, I couldn't bear for her to see me.

Back in Florida on Friday, I tried calling Raymond's phone numbers, but had no luck. Tuesday, I searched the American Red Cross database of evacuees. I found Raymond's name.

He was at a hospital in Lake Charles, La. The database listed a hospital official's e-mail address. I sent her a note asking if Raymond was okay and if he had heard from Jean. She e-mailed me back with great news: They were both fine and had been reunited.

I called their room Tuesday evening and spoke with them. They were safe and, for the most part, healthy.

Jean told me that after I left her, rescuers took her to a hospital in western Louisiana. She stayed there until Monday night, when she learned her husband was at a hospital just 40 miles away.

She said rising flood waters had trapped Raymond at the apartment. He also had fallen, breaking his wrist. He later was rescued and taken to a hospital in Lake Charles.

A friend in Texas helped him track down Jean in the nearby hospital. She was moved to her husband's hospital Monday night.

When reunited, they hugged tight and cried.

"The good Lord answered my prayers," Jean said. "We really love each other and we have for a long time. I'm so happy my husband found me after all I went through to find him."

The hospital staff cleared a room for them so they won't have to be separated again.

Chris Tisch can be reached at tisch@sptimes.com

[Last modified September 7, 2005, 01:03:06]


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