Simon SaysSimon Says NPR's Scott Simon Shares His Take On Events Large And Small

Life or Death, Right or Wrong

Two painful stories from two hurricanes show how hard it is to make the right life-or-death decision when it comes to evacuating the elderly. In New Orleans, seniors stayed and died. In Houston, they were evacuated... and died on the highway.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

Catastrophes always remind us of the capriciousness of life. There are abandoned dogs who survive hurricanes and people bunkered down in what they thought were safe places who do not. Yesterday a bus evacuating residents of the Brighton Gardens nursing home in Bellaire, Texas, blew up on the gridlocked highway leading into Dallas. People who ran that home thought evacuating their patients was the best way to keep them safe. But emptying great cities also has dangers in the crush, rush and swelter. Twenty-four patients died aboard that bus. Emergency vehicles couldn't reach it in the jam of traffic.

Also yesterday Ann Hull and Doug Struck of The Washington Post reported how 22 residents of New Orleans' Lafon Nursing Home died when they were not evacuated before Hurricane Katrina. The nun who manages that home thought it was risky to move a hundred of her frail, elderly patients. Reportedly a third of New Orleans' nursing homes did not evacuate their patients. Sister Augustine believed that their stout brick building was sturdy enough to survive Katrina. It had already survived decades of hurricanes. The nuns and hospital staff did not abandon their patients. Indeed, they tried to save their lives with what The Post calls `desperate heroics.' When floodwaters invaded the home, the nuns and staff hauled the patients upstairs in their arms and on their backs. They had stocked medicine, food, water and batteries, but when those supplies ran out, nuns broke into a local store to take what they could find for their patients. As the waters began to recede, police, fire and Louisiana Guard vehicles sped by, but they did not stop at the nursing home. They had to put out fires, answer alarms and rescue people stranded on their roofs.

The bodies of the patients who died, and to be sure some of them were already terminally ill, were wrapped in sheets inside the home's chapel. The fact that New Orleans had survived so many previous hurricanes might have made the nuns who run the La Fond Nursing Home believe it was safest to keep their most fragile patients with them, and 22 of them died. The fact that so many nursing home patients died in New Orleans might have made the people who run the Brighton Gardens Nursing Home in Texas remove their residents, and 24 died in that evacuation while the storm did not directly strike Houston.

It is humbling to remind ourselves that it's hard to say what's always right or wrong in life-and-death decisions.

And the time is now 18 minutes past the hour.

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Simon SaysSimon Says NPR's Scott Simon Shares His Take On Events Large And Small