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Bush Tours Damage; 45 Bodies Found at Hospital

The president rejects criticism that response was slow or race-based. FEMA chief steps down.

September 13, 2005|David Zucchino, Solomon Moore and Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar | Times Staff Writers

While bodies were being revealed in small numbers in the eastern wards, 45 were found at Memorial Medical Center, reportedly left in the hospital by doctors and nurses who evacuated dozens of patients from the facility during heavy flooding.

Mortuary teams were processing the bodies after they were removed a day earlier from the shuttered hospital's halls. But health officials had known since last week that they would find bodies there, informed by doctors who were forced to evacuate after surging floodwaters short-circuited power to vital life-support respirators.

State health officials said many of the dead were elderly, ill patients whose conditions worsened as doctors and nurses struggled with sweltering 106-degree temperatures and shortages of food, water and medicine.

Joanne Lalla, an oncology nurse, said she "couldn't understand why nobody was coming to help us."

Dave Goodson, the hospital's assistant administrator, said that at one point, 500 hospital staff members were there along with 2,000 patients.

"These patients were not abandoned," Goodson said. Patients at several other New Orleans hospitals also died during evacuations over the same period. At Charity Hospital, several patients died after doctors and nurses trying to evacuate them came under sniper fire and retreated inside.

But in St. Bernard Parish, state officials launched an investigation into the deaths of 20 residents of St. Rita's Nursing Home. The victims perished at the height of intense flooding.

Prosecutors are looking into reports that the facility's staff fled the premises, leaving behind mostly elderly patients, some trapped in their beds.

"I want answers," state Atty. Gen. Charles C. Foti Jr. said. "I want to know why those people were trapped and were not evacuated."

Zucchino and Moore reported from New Orleans and Alonso-Zaldivar from Washington. Times staff writers Stephen Braun, Edwin Chen and Richard Simon in Washington, Lianne Hart in Baton Rouge, and Ellen Barry and Rick Loomis in New Orleans contributed to this report.

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