LIANE HANSEN, host:
More than 1,300 people in Mississippi and Louisiana died during Hurricane Katrina and the ensuing floods last year. While the deaths cut across all races, it appears that age determined the likelihood of survival. Nearly 40 percent of the dead who have been identified so far were over the age of 71.
NPR's Audie Cornish spoke with the families of three elderly Louisiana residents who died due to the storm, and has this report.
AUDIE CORNISH reporting:
Their stories all start and end the same way.
Mr. NICHOLAS BARROW (Hurricane Katrina Evacuee): And on that day, I rode my bike over here to come check on him, to see if he wanted to come with before we left. And he said he was just going to ride it out here. They wanted to stay.
Mr. EDWARD CHERRIE (Hurricane Katrina Evacuee): We decided together that we would weather it out because we had been through many storms. We'd been through Bessie...
Ms. SHARON MORANG (Hurricane Katrina Evacuee): So evacuating, not evacuating, not knowing what to do and whatnot, he decided to stay.
CORNISH: Nicholas Barrow, Edward Cherrie and Sharon Morang all lost elderly loved ones at the time of Hurricane Katrina, an aunt, a mother, a father.
Ms. MORANG: He's the spitting image of Walter Matthau and he was mistaken a few times for him. He'd like to think he was Cary Grant, but no such luck.
CORNISH: Sharon Morang's dad, Robert Morang, was 70 years old and living in a French Quarter area apartment building for seniors. Robert Morang had survived Hodgkin's disease with a damaged heart. But he still loved to go walking around the city and often played pickup games of chess near Jackson Square. He didn't drive, much less own a car, and in the days before Hurricane Katrina, he and the other people in his building decided they were staying.
Ms. MORANG: He felt he was secure enough. He was on the sixth floor. Even if there was a flood, it wasn't going to reach him. So he felt safe. And I really don't think he put any thought into, you're not going to have electricity, there's not going to be running water. I don't think he thought everything out.
CORNISH: Sharon Morang evacuated without her father as she struggled to take care of a daughter who had been hospitalized just before the storm hit. It was days later when people in her family found they could not track him down. The National Guard found him dead of a heart attack in his apartment with the doors barricaded by furniture, like many people in his building who had done so in fear of looters.
But to Edward Cherrie, evacuation was not necessarily the better choice.
Mr. EDWARD CHERRIE (Hurricane Katrina Evacuee): My mother's death, the prime contributor was the neglect and the lack of organization in this evacuation.
CORNISH: Edward Cherrie's 91-year-old mother Onelia(ph) used a walker, but took little more than blood pressure medication, according to her son. Cherrie's mother had lived in New Orleans all her life, a former teacher and devout Catholic who he says knew a prayer for every conceivable situation.
Mr. CHERRIE: She had a memory that was unbelievable. She could remember all of the dates that her relatives had passed away, and when they got married, and just all of the vital statistics of the people in the family, she knew.
CORNISH: They rode out the storm in her Treme home just fine. But levee breaks brought water to their front steps. When the city shut off the running water and the power went out, they had to change their plans. The next thing they knew, firefighters were plucking them out of a boat and they were in the Morial Convention Center.
It was hot, there was no food, hardly any water, and 72 hours after their arrival, Cherrie says his mother became dehydrated. She was taken to makeshift medical facilities at the New Orleans Airport, where she died of a heart attack. Cherrie is still torn over his decision.
Mr. CHERRIE: But you've gotta realize we survived Katrina, the storm. We didn't survive the evacuation subsequent to the storm. If we had stayed in the house and refused to leave, my mother would probably be here today.
CORNISH: Seventy-two-year-old Leola Lyons also decided that evacuating might not be the best thing for her health. Lyons had just gone through a biopsy the week before. Neither her nephew, Nicholas Barrow, nor his father, Leo Barrow, could convince her to pack up medicines and supplies for her and her husband and just leave town.
Mr. LEO BARROW (Hurricane Katrina Evacuee): The number one reason why was she had gotten operated on. She said she didn't want to be around all those people with germs and infection. The second reason was she just felt this house was equipped and they had food and water for days.
CORNISH: Leola Lyons and her husband did pack their luggage just in case. But those suitcases remained tucked overhead in an alcove in the bedroom where hurricane emergency officials eventually found her. Her husband was alive, but Lyons' death certificate shows her cause of death as drowning.
But drowning was not the most common cause of death for most elderly people, according to Orleans Parish Coroner Dr. Frank Minyard.
Dr. FRANK MINYARD (Coroner, Orleans Parish): They died from the normal disease process that they had going on for a long time, most of them heart trouble. And so, you know, a lot of people say, oh those poor old ladies. She didn't drown; she died from a heart attack from being afraid of drowning.
CORNISH: Many elderly did not have the resources, cars or family support, to get out of the city in time. Though some of the family here say that they hope more elderly will give up on riding out the storms. Meanwhile, officials at both the federal and city level are working on ways to improve future evacuations, especially for the elderly.
Audie Cornish, NPR News, New Orleans.