Hope Survives in Search for Katrina's Missing One year later, families on the Gulf Coast are still searching for loved ones. For Dorothy Graps, the news is sweet -- after months of doubt, she was reunited with a son still alive. For others, the inability to find relatives, leaves them searching for answers.
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Hope Survives in Search for Katrina's Missing

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Hope Survives in Search for Katrina's Missing

Hope Survives in Search for Katrina's Missing

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

From NPR News, this is WEEKEND EDITION. I'm Liane Hansen.

Fifty-two Sunday mornings ago, Hurricane Katrina swept into the Gulf of Mexico with sustained winds of 170 miles per hour, a Category Five storm with the potential to cause catastrophic damage. Eric Blake, a meteorologist with the National Hurricane Center in Miami, provided the status report and forecast on WEEKEND EDITION that morning.

(Soundbite of WEEKEND EDITION broadcast)

Mr. ERIC BLAKE (Meteorologist, National Hurricane Center): Right now it's about 225 miles south/southeast of the mouth of the Mississippi River, moving between west, northwest and northwest around 12 miles per hour. We expect it to turn more to the northwest and north later on today. This is a very dangerous hurricane.

HANSEN: Katrina wavered between Category Four and Category Five as it took aim on the Gulf Coast through the day and into the night.

(Soundbite of WEEKEND EDITION broadcast)

Mr. BLAKE: We have a hurricane warning up from Morgan City, Louisiana to the Alabama/Florida border. The hurricane force wind go out over 100 miles on the northeastern side. So that means if the hurricane were to make landfall in southeast Louisiana, places in Alabama could still see hurricane force winds. So it's just a very big, large storm, storm surge possible over 20 feet. It has a high potential to cause a serious loss of life if people do not get out of the way of this hurricane.

HANSEN: The official death toll from Katrina stands at about 1,700 lives. Authorities are still recovering bodies and some people are still searching for loved one now a year later. The news is often grim, as NPR's Cheryl Corley learned on a recent visit to New Orleans.

CHERYL CORLEY reporting:

I'm standing in front of a small brick house on Laverne Street in east New Orleans. The yard is overgrown, the weeds and wildflowers surrounding two trees. Debris spills out of an open front door. In late July, nearly a year after Hurricane Katrina, firefighters found the skeletal remains of a body inside. Demetrius Brown(ph) lived just a few houses down.

Ms. DEMETRIUS BROWN (New Orleans Resident): I don't know her name. We just know her from - she'd come down with her cats and come get her newspaper every now and then. She'll speak and go back in the house. And when me and my fiancé heard, we was shocked, to leave her in the house that long.

CORLEY: The state's medical director, Louis Cataldie, says what happened on Laverne Street was complicated. A search began after the woman's son called authorities to say that he believed his mother was still in the home.

Mr. LOUIS CATALDIE (State Medical Director, Louisiana): She was a very elderly lady who lived with a very elderly son. And the son - the other family members who were rather distant thought that they had been evacuated out together. And ultimately the son had no phone and capability of communicating was impaired for several reasons. And ultimately, when it was followed up on, the son was able to say, yeah, my momma's in the house.

CORLEY: It was not until July 28th that firefighters and cadaver dogs conducted the search. Steve Glynn, the fire department's chief of special operations, says a layer of mud on furniture and floors collapsed ceilings in the house and extensive amounts of debris made the process very difficult.

Mr. STEVE GLYNN (Chief of Special Operations, New Orleans Fire Department): We would let the dog do a search, an initial search, then we would come in and rake off a layer of debris and then let the dog come in and search again. And sometimes we would have to actually search in layers, where we would just remove a layer of debris, let the dog search. Remove a layer of debris, let the dog search.

CORLEY: The special operations team ended regular day to day searches June 30th. But Glen says it's only mildly surprising that human remains were found in this case. He says it would take years to search all of the area's devastated properties.

Official records indicate Rosa Vlaho, who was in her mid-80s, lived at the Laverne Street address. Even so, Frank Minyard, the Orleans Parrish coroner, he must wait for positive proof.

Mr. FRANK MINYARD (Coroner): We still had to go through our routine with the anthropologist and wit the DNA. She had had some damage by animals - cats, dogs. Even though her son called in and said, you know, I think my mother's in the house, we're still not saying that that's his mother until the DNA comes back.

CORLEY: There is no more waiting for Dorothy Graps. Earlier this month, she found out that her eldest son, 46-year-old Earnest, is alive. Graps was hospitalized on August 29th, hours before Hurricane Katrina blasted the Gulf Coast, and she watched in horror, worried about her family as the tragedy unfolded on a television in her room.

Ms. DOROTHY GRAPS (New Orleans Resident): And the doctor said, don't worry, he all right. I said, I got a feeling he all right too, but what I was looking at on TV was not nice. The people was dying on bridges. I said, what the people doing dying on the bridges? It was a mess.

CORLEY: A mess too when floodwaters began to rise in the hospital. New Orleans Memorial Medical Center lost electricity and other utilities. Graps was airlifted to another hospital more than 100 miles away. She had no idea where any of her family members were.

Later, when she ended up in a shelter in Eunice, Louisiana, in the heart of Cajun Country, she asked the workers there to put the names of her relatives on a missing persons list.

Ms. GRAPS: I didn't know if they were dead or alive. The months rolled on and on and on. It took over seven months before I found out anything, about my sister, my brother, my two nephews. I put all their names down.

CORLEY: As Graps leafs through a notebook, tears fill her eyes and run down her face as she recounts her story.

Ms. GRAPS: I had to go give a DNA. At first they said that my oldest sister was dead, but it wasn't her.

CORLEY: Graps would find out that her family was alive, most relatives living in Houston. She would be reunited with her youngest son, Calvin, who was 39, disabled and lives with her now in a two-bedroom trailer home in Eunice. But until recently, the fate of Graps oldest son, Earnest, was a mystery.

Ms. GRAPS: I never felt that he was dead, 'cause I knows it. A mother raise her child know her child.

CORLEY: A police detective in Gretna, just outside of New Orleans, confirmed her hunch. When his department received the list of missing persons, he realized that Earnest Graps had worked on the house of a fellow detective. They called Graps in and contacted his mother.

Ms. GRAPS: They called me early in the morning and said we have found your son. I said, thank you, Lord. (Unintelligible) I said, that's Earnest's voice! Mom, I'm all right, mom. And the detective said he got scar on his chest. He do.

CORLEY: Graps says her son has no telephone, so it's been difficult to contact him since. She's just happy he's alive and she says when she can scrape up enough money, she'll travel to see him.

Ms. GRAPS: I know where he at now. But I might have to go see it for myself, as a mother.

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

Ms. ANGEL CHAUPPETTA (Daughter of Missing Hurricane Katrina Victim): My father's full name is Charles Lewis Chauppetta, Sr.

CORLEY: And his nickname is Slim. He's Caucasian. And Angel Chauppetta says her father is about six feet tall and weighs 150 pounds. A quiet man, a retired welder, he's 63, wears glasses and has a dragon tattoo on his chest. She last saw him about a month and a half before the storm at his home, a pop-up camper which sat in a clearing next to a two-lane highway and across from Bayou LaLoutre in the fishing community of Hopedale, Louisiana.

Ms. CHAUPPETTA: He loved it here.

CORLEY: Chauppetta says her father was living a simple life, boating and catching fish, shrimp and crab in the Bayou, as it meandered through the marshes of St Bernard Parish and into the Gulf of Mexico.

Ms. CHAUPPETTA: Where this film is, is where his front door was. It was over here. And there was a little walkway leading to the ditch, which he had cleared an area, and he spent a lot of time there, and he'd also ride the bayou.

CORLEY: One of Chauppetta's boats, a canoe with a few cinder blocks inside, is still at the clearing. On its side, the words Do Not Take. Angel says she and her brothers want their father to have it when he returns.

Ms. CHAUPPETTA: My brother and I were just talking, and we both feel that he's alive and he's just somewhere maybe with amnesia, because it was very traumatic what they went through here.

CORLEY: St. Bernard Parish was hit hard by Katrina. A wall of water smashed structures and dragged them out into the Gulf. The state's medical director says he suspects many Hurricane Katrina victims were simply washed out to sea. But Angel Chauppetta does not believe her father is never coming home. She says he wouldn't know how to contact his family since they've moved, and he doesn't use a computer.

So on the highway near the Bayou, her phone number written on the road urges Slim to call. She's posted fliers with her father's photograph in Louisiana and Mississippi. And people have called to say they've seen him. The latest sighting was at a convenience store in Hattiesburg, Mississippi.

Ms. CHAUPPETTA: I went to the location and I spoke with the store attendant. And she also identified my father in the photo, and said, yes, she had seen him there, and tell me he came in every other morning for coffee always about the same time.

CORLEY: Chauppetta says she made several trips but was never able to verify anything since the man stopped coming to the store. Charles Chauppetta rode a bicycle and did not drive. Before the storm, one of Angel's brothers tried to help Chauppetta evacuate twice, but he wasn't ready to go. When the son returned a third time, authorities had blocked the road. Angel says she hopes someone else drove her father out. But she says if not, he has the skills to survive, like eating raw fish, something he showed his children how to do when they were young.

Ms. CHAUPPETTA: So I feel that if he did ride out the storm and that he is set up somewhere out here, he would be eating fish, raw oysters, shrimp, crabs, whatever, until he found a way to make fire, which he showed us how to do that too.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CORLEY: Chauppetta says she's hoping though that her father did not stay, that someone did rescue him, and that she and her family will find him with the help of other people.

Ms. CHAUPPETTA: I also need to say that I also feel for the other families who've been missing people, relatives.

CORLEY: Angel Chauppetta says she will never give up hope. She continues to look for Charles Chauppetta, Sr., also known as Slim.

Cheryl Corley, NPR News.

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