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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

As the death toll creeps higher in the New Orleans area, it's become clear that many of the most vulnerable citizens--the elderly and the infirm housed in hospitals and nursing homes--were left behind as thousands fled the storm. Of more than 700 bodies tallied so far, more than one-quarter--or at least 154 people--were hospital patients or nursing home residents. A team of New York Times reporters interviewed several officials from hospitals and nursing homes to find out why so many of the residents were trapped by rising waters and then abandoned or ignored by rescuers. David Rohde is a staff writer for The New York Times. He explains why so many nursing homes failed to evacuate their residents.

Mr. DAVID ROHDE (The New York Times): It looks like at least 60 percent of them decided to stay in New Orleans. Some of them decided to wait out the storm and thought it would be better to keep fragile patients in place; other ones had signed contracts with bus companies, but the buses never showed up to evacuate them.

NORRIS: The buses never showed up? Was it a case where everyone was relying on the same two or three bus companies to get residents out of the city?

Mr. ROHDE: Yes, that's exactly what happened. The state did require every nursing home to have an evacuation plan, every nursing home had to have a signed contract with a bus company and every nursing home had to have a predetermined place where they could take their residents in the case of a hurricane. Apparently, no one checked if everyone was using the handful of bus companies that exist in New Orleans, and essentially the entire system overloaded.

NORRIS: And it sounds like the problem was later exacerbated because the same thing happened when they called in helicopters. It was the same two or three companies that actually provided the crews.

Mr. ROHDE: Yes. And what happened, both in hospitals and nursing homes, was those that were either trapped in the city and couldn't get buses or those that decided to stay, they all assumed that help would come within 24 to 48 hours, and essentially, it didn't come. And this is the real problem throughout New Orleans, was that in the end, it took five full days to evacuate all of the city hospitals and nursing homes.

NORRIS: Well, anyone who watched television saw the helicopters essentially plucking people off roofs throughout Mississippi and Alabama and Louisiana. Was there any system of triage so they could identify and quickly get to the nursing homes and the hospitals?

Mr. ROHDE: Well, in fact, the opposite happened. We heard from--there were private companies that got so frustrated with the lack of government help that they sent in private helicopters--these were hospital chains. And FEMA officials, according to the hospital chains, confiscated the helicopters and diverted them for other uses; FEMA denies this.

There are nursing homes that said that they had buses on the way to evacuate elderly patients. Again, they say FEMA confiscated the buses and used them for other purposes. FEMA, again, denies it, but the nursing homes say that the buses were sent to the Superdome instead of getting elderly residents. The nursing home administrators say literally elderly people were dying as healthy, able-bodied people were being evacuated from the Superdome.

NORRIS: These are patients that presumably had family members. Was there any individual effort to go in and save a family member?

Mr. ROHDE: Many nursing homes that chose to stay in the city did call families and say, you know, `We're going to stay.' In the past, when they've tried to evacuate nursing homes, they've had people die on the buses, there's been terrible traffic jams and the hurricane would skirt New Orleans, so that was the thing for some people that stayed.

There was one man who was interviewed--it was actually in a story by the Los Angeles Times--a firefighter who left his father in St. Rita's--the home that was actually flooded where 34 people died--because in the last hurricane evacuation, his sister had taken their father in her car and he had nearly died in the traffic jam that ensued, so they left him in the home. He ended up, himself, inspecting St. Rita's and finding the bodies in there. He did not find his father's body, but he found many other people's.

NORRIS: Hmm. David, we've been talking about nursing homes. What about all those elderly and sick patients who received in-home health care, who had nurses or in-home operators?

Mr. ROHDE: That's a giant question mark. And, again, you know, we found 63 dead in nursing homes, and we only contacted about half of the nursing homes that had to evacuate from New Orleans, so the number from nursing homes could be much higher. Elderly that stayed in their private houses, that could be a vastly larger number. No one knows, you know, and that's one that could prove to be one of the real tragedies of many in this hurricane.

NORRIS: David, thank you for talking to us.

Mr. ROHDE: Thank you.

NORRIS: David Rohde is a staff writer for The New York Times.

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