Hope Survives in Search for Katrina's Missing

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Brick house

Debris-filled house in East New Orleans where a search team found the skeletal remains of an elderly woman on July 28, 2006, 11 months after Hurricane Katrina hit the area. Cheryl Corley, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Cheryl Corley, NPR
Steve Glynn Points to Search and Rescue Map

Steve Glynn, the chief of special operations for the New Orleans Fire Department, points to the department's new search and rescue map which includes GPS coordinates. Cheryl Corley, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Cheryl Corley, NPR
Dorothy Graps

Dorothy Graps recently found her eldest son, Earnest, a year after Hurricane Katrina hit. She holds her "phonebook," a notebook which she uses to write down the new locations of her relatives. Cheryl Corley, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Cheryl Corley, NPR
Angel Chauppetta

Angel Chauppetta with pictures of her missing father, Charles Chauppetta Sr., nicknamed, "Slim". Cheryl Corley, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Cheryl Corley, NPR
Photograph of Charles Chauppetta i

Angel Chauppetta holds up a picture of her missing father. He has a tattoo of a dragon on his chest. Cheryl Corley, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Cheryl Corley, NPR
Photograph of Charles Chauppetta

Angel Chauppetta holds up a picture of her missing father. He has a tattoo of a dragon on his chest.

Cheryl Corley, NPR
Charles Chauppetta's canoe. i

Charles Chauppetta, Sr.'s boat at the clearing where he lived in Hopedale, La. This is the last spot his daughter, Angela, saw him before Hurricane Katrina hit. His family painted "Don't take" on the boat in the hopes that he will have it when he returns. Cheryl Corley, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Cheryl Corley, NPR
Charles Chauppetta's canoe.

Charles Chauppetta, Sr.'s boat at the clearing where he lived in Hopedale, La. This is the last spot his daughter, Angela, saw him before Hurricane Katrina hit. His family painted "Don't take" on the boat in the hopes that he will have it when he returns.

Cheryl Corley, NPR
Phone Number Scrawled on Road

On the street next to their father's campsite, the family has painted their phone number (area code 601), in the hopes he will give them a call. Cheryl Corley, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Cheryl Corley, NPR

The small brick house on Laverne Street in East New Orleans is in disarray. The yard is overgrown; debris spills out of the open front door. In late July, nearly a year after Hurricane Katrina, firefighters found the skeletal remains of a body inside.

Neighbors saw the elderly woman who lived there, Rosa Vlaho, only occasionally when she would come out to get the newspaper.

The state's medical director, Louis Cataldie, says what happened on Laverne Street is complicated. "She was a very elderly lady who lived with a very elderly son."

The two became separated during the evacuation and a search began only when the woman's son phoned in late July and told authorities his mother might still be in the home, says Cataldie. Firefighters and cadaver dogs conducted the search on July 28th.

Steve Glynn, the fire department's chief of special operations, says layers of mud on furniture and floors and collapsed ceilings make the process of finding remains very difficult. He says it would take years to search all of the area's devastated properties.

Reunification Brings Relief

There is no more waiting for Dorothy Graps. Earlier this month she found out that her eldest son, 46-year-old Earnest, is alive.

Dorothy Graps was hospitalized on Aug. 29 — hours before Hurricane Katrina blasted the Gulf coast, and she watched in horror as the tragedy unfolded on a television in her room.

"The doctor said, 'Don't worry they're all right,'" says Graps. "But what I was looking at on TV... was a mess."

"I didn't know if they were dead or alive, the months rolled on and on and on," says Graps. "It took over seven months before I found out anything — about my sister, my brother, my two nephews."

A police detective in Gretna, just outside of New Orleans, eventually located Earnest Graps after realizing he had been working on the house of a fellow detective.

"They called me early in the morning and said we have found your son," says Dorothy Graps, "I said, 'that's Earnest's voice!'"

Still Searching and Hoping

When the Louisiana Family Assistance Center shut its doors earlier this month, 135 people remained on the missing list. Of the 13,000 people first reported missing, more than 11,000 were found alive.

Angel Chauppetta's father, Charles Lewis Chauppetta, Sr., 63, has still not been found. He is about 6 feet tall and weighs 150 pounds. He's a quiet man, a retired welder who wears glasses and has a dragon tatoo on his chest. His nickname is "Slim."

Angel last saw her father about a month and a half before the storm. She visited him at his home, a pop-up camper that sat in a clearing in the fishing community of Hopedale, La.

Angel says her father was living a simple life — boating and catching fish, shrimp and crab in the Bayou.

One of his boats — a canoe with a few cinder blocks inside is still at the clearing. On its side, Angel and her siblings have painted the words, "Do Not Take." Angel says she wants her father to have it when he returns.

St. Bernard Parish, where Charles Lewis Chauppetta, Sr. lived was hit hard by Katrina. The state's medical director says he suspects many Hurricane Katrina victims were simply washed out to sea, but Angel does not believe her father is never coming home.

"My brother and I were just talking and we both feel that he's alive and maybe somewhere with amnesia," she says.

On the highway near the Bayou, her phone number is written on the road — urging Slim to call. She has posted fliers with her father's photograph in Louisiana and Mississippi. People have called to say they've seen him — but the family hasn't been able to verify anything, yet.

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