Honoring Loved Ones Lost to Katrina

We talk to an array of people who have lost loved ones to Katrina. Among others, Warren Gunnels recalls memories of his 61-year-old mother, Beverly, who died in floodwaters in Biloxi, Miss. She was a former airline stewardess who later developed a fear of flying. And Al Gourrier remembers his 96-year-old father Alfred. He was a chef in New Orleans specializing in Creole cuisine.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

Today, as Hurricane Rita presses in on Texas and Louisiana, we pause for a few minutes to remember some of the dead from Hurricane Katrina.

Mr. KEVIN CULLINS(ph): She used to travel a lot; her in her little friend--they'd get in the car and drive up to Boston or drive out to California, even at age 80.

Mr. WARREN GUNNELS: She loved to go soft-shell crabbing with her sister.

Mr. AL GOURRIER: He prayed every day, and he was blessed with a long life because of the good life that he had lived.

BLOCK: Overall, it's surprising how little we know about the more than 1,000 people known to have died in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. We know a lot about how people perished. Many drowned or died from dehydration or lack of medicine, or they died from injuries sustained when trees or buildings fell.

NORRIS: But the various morgues and coroners still haven't released the names of many of Katrina's dead. After three weeks, bodies are still being identified. So today we briefly put aside talk about levees and the mechanics of evacuations and recovery to offer a few personal stories about how some of Katrina's victims lived.

BLOCK: Beverly Gunnels was 61 years old and a native of Gulfport, Mississippi, though she lived in the Midwest for a time. Her son, Warren Gunnels, told us about his mother's first job. She was a teen-ager working at the Oceanarium in Gulfport.

Mr. GUNNELS: She really liked working there, but her mom was terrified because there were sharks, and Mom's responsibility was to feed all of the fish and the sharks there, and one time she almost lost her life there trying to feed the sharks and was rescued by one of her co-workers there, and after that experience, that was the last time her mom allowed her to work at the Oceanarium.

BLOCK: Oh, my goodness.

Mr. GUNNELS: She always kept in close touch with her high school friends. One of their favorite stories was they were out drag-racing and the police had given them a ticket, but I think people that would know her in her later years would never suspect that my mom was ever caught drag-racing out in the streets of Gulfport.

BLOCK: I read in the obituary for your mother in the local paper, in the Sun Herald, that she was a stewardess for Braniff Airlines back in the '60s.

Mr. GUNNELS: She was. She would always describe the outfits that she had to wear, the crazy leopard skin outfits and miniskirts and the pillbox hat.

BLOCK: Did she have a sense of adventure? Is that partly what drew her to that line of work, do you think?

Mr. GUNNELS: Well, I think so. She loved traveling, and as a stewardess she was able to travel all around Europe. She would go to London and Paris; that was a vacation that she had. But the only way she was able to take that vacation was because she was a stewardess. The funny thing was in her older years when she would visit me in Washington, DC, she was afraid to fly, so she would always take the train to visit me from Mississippi.

BLOCK: What drew your mother to the Gulf Coast, do you think?

Mr. GUNNELS: Her personality. She was very warm and gentle and kind to people and still had a wonderful, beautiful Southern accent, and she loved getting her hair done and loved makeup, but really just I think she could relate to people in the South much better than she could relate to people in the Midwest or the East Coast. When I was visiting Mom there and spending a lot of time with her, I could understand that that was my mom's home; that's where she felt the most comfortable. I knew that that was the right place for Mom. I'll miss her very much.

BLOCK: Warren Gunnels, remembering his mother, Beverly Gunnels, of Gulfport, Mississippi, known as Babs to her friends. He said his mother died at the home of her caregiver, who lived in North Biloxi. The caregiver and her husband were able to hold on to the rafters when nine feet of water rushed into their home. Her son told us that Beverly Gunnels was fragile and could not hold on.

NORRIS: Rosalee Gadree(ph) was 100 years old. She lived in a New Orleans nursing home and died during the evacuation. Her grandson, Kevin Cullins(ph), remembers that Gadree was all about work. He learned that when he lived with her for a year. And Rosalee Gadree, he says, was very tight with her money and famously thrifty.

Mr. KEVIN CULLINS: She really saved pretty much everything--bent nails. I mean, if we were doing a little project out in the back mending the fence or whatever, we couldn't go buy some nails; we had to go in the shed and find this jar of bent nails and straighten them out and use those.

BLOCK: Sam Tart was 51. He was an oceanographer for the federal government for 27 years. He earned degrees in chemistry and biology from Jackson State University. Tart died trying to save his two-year-old son, John(ph), from rising floodwaters in Gulfport. John also died; it was his birthday.

NORRIS: Tafanio Guladoro(ph) of St. Bernard Parish was 82 and a retired union truck driver. He'd lived the American Dream, family members said; he moved out of New Orleans and bought a home of his own in St. Bernard. It was the only home he ever owned.

BLOCK: Guladoro died at St. Rita's Nursing Home. Owners of that facility are facing state criminal charges for failing to evacuate the patients before Katrina.

NORRIS: Alfred Gourrier was 96 years old. He and his wife sought shelter at the New Orleans Veterans Hospital. After that facility lost power for a time, he died.

Mr. AL GOURRIER: My father was a 30-year career veteran in the Navy, and he would get up early in the morning and he'd go to work. He'd cook breakfast and lunch and come home, take a nap, and he'd go to work at French Quarter restaurants in New Orleans.

NORRIS: Al Gourrier was named for his father. He said his dad was quite a cook and food was at the center of family life.

Mr. GOURRIER: He was a chef and he was a master at cooking Creole cuisine, so it's a family tradition that my father shared with all of us.

NORRIS: Well, share with us one of those kitchen stories. There are all kinds of books you can buy that have--feature New Orleans or Cajun or Creole cuisine, but if I understand it the real cooks down there never cook from a recipe.

Mr. GOURRIER: That's correct. You know, if you have that touch and we have a time we say you put your finger in it and that's your signature.

NORRIS: What was your father's signature piece?

Mr. GOURRIER: Oh, he was great at gumbo. And my father could cook anything. I mean, we'd come home. We'd have griots or we'd have shrimp Creole. Dad would always cook up a great dish for us.

NORRIS: Have you learned things about your father that you didn't even know, stories that relatives or neighbors, if you've been able to connect with them, have told you about him that you never even knew?

Mr. GOURRIER: Yes. I had this neighbor who said to me that my dad would sit on the front porch after he had cooked, and we lived in New Orleans and I'm talking about in the '40s and '50s where before air conditioning, after you cook in the house in the Creole cottage that we lived in, everybody would go and sit out on the front porch. Kids would play out in the yard. Well, my father would stop people who would pass the house along the street and invite them to come in and get some of his cooking. That's the kind of man my dad was. See, he was a person who shared, and what he taught me is the basic operating principle and philosophy that I live by. And that is the only thing that comes back to you in life is what you give away.

NORRIS: Well, Mr. Gourrier, all the best to you, your mother, your eight siblings and the 28 grandchildren in your family.

Mr. GOURRIER: Thank you very much.

NORRIS: Al Gourrier spoke to us by telephone from the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland. His mother is there being treated for dehydration.

BLOCK: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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