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Struggle for survival

The last time we saw them, they were frozen in the most perilous moments of their lives. From a storm that produced limitless gripping images, theirs became iconic. But we never knew the people inside the frame. A year later, we found them. They are ordinary people, trying to get back to the way ordinary used to feel.

By VANESSA GEZARI
Published August 29, 2006


There she was on CNN.com, a frail old woman in a wheelchair outside the Convention Center, fading in the heat.

Her name was misspelled, but Michael Harold knew. Aunt Dorothy.

Michael had left New Orleans on Saturday, before anyone understood what the storm would do. His aunt, Dorothy Duvic, was 74 and had Alzheimer's. She spent her days in a fetal position, barely able to sit. Michael had decided she would be most comfortable in her Uptown house with a caretaker.

Now her image was being beamed into living rooms and onto front pages. All Michael Harold or anyone else could do was look.

In New Orleans, caretaker Terry Johnson felt just as helpless. She yelled at the Convention Center crowd. "Are you all gonna let her die out here?"

Besides the old woman, she had four children and an infant grandson to look after. She had no food for Dorothy and nowhere to change her diaper. She sprinkled her with water to keep her cool.

Terry, 44, had cared for Dorothy for three years. She was paid $9 an hour. She worked five nights a week as a janitor at the Times-Picayune.

She had brought Dorothy to the Convention Center after three days without power. The old woman needed oxygen. As the sun rose on the fourth day, Terry prayed. Then she and Dorothy hitched a ride to the Hyatt, where people said there was a medical unit.

In front of the hotel, a national guardsman looked at Dorothy and told Terry he didn't think she would live. He turned them away. Terry started pushing the old woman back to the Convention Center.

"I had people walk up to me saying, 'Oh baby, she's gone,' " Terry said. "I was like, 'No, she's not.' I'm still saying, 'Miss Dottie hang in with me, are you gonna hang in with me?' And she was saying, 'Yes, I'm with you.' "

Terry collected her family and hitched a ride across the river to Jefferson Parish. At a Shell station, she flagged down a man in a pickup and asked for a ride to a hospital.

"He said, 'Listen Miss, I'll bring you there, because if that was my mama, I'd want somebody to do that for her.' "

At the hospital, Terry wrote Dorothy's information on a card and stuck it in her wheelchair. She hugged her and told her she loved her. She said that she would call Michael.

"I couldn't do no more," Terry said.

On Sept. 2, the day after cameras captured Dorothy and Terry outside the Convention Center, a front-page story in Baton Rouge reported her death. More than a week later, Michael called the newspaper to ask for a correction. Dorothy had survived.

She lived four more months. She died in a nursing home two days before her 75th birthday.

Terry now lives in Houston with her two youngest children and her year-old grandson. Her house in New Orleans flooded 12 feet deep. She still has Dorothy's picture ID and medicine. She still has the striped shirt and head scarf she wore the day she was photographed. They are the only things she salvaged from her old life.

She has been to three job fairs. Someone offered her work at a nursing home 45 minutes away, but with no car and the children to look after, she couldn't do it. She planned to go to another job fair today, on the first anniversary of the storm.

"Something's going to work out for me," she said. "Something's going to come through."