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NEW ORLEANS : TWO YEARS LATER

All That Remains

As the city's elderly return after Katrina, many find little but rubble and a life of squalor

September 18, 2007|Richard Fausset | Times Staff Writer

NEW ORLEANS — For many elderly survivors of Hurricane Katrina, life has become a minor-key coda of rubble and ruin, of discomfort and displacement, of strained social services and fear of depredation.

About 40,000 of New Orleans' 85,000 elderly have returned since the city flooded two years ago, said Howard Rodgers III, executive director of the New Orleans Council on Aging.

The public and private sectors are doing what they can for the elderly, but they are overwhelmed by the need. Space is available at nursing homes, though it is more limited at the assisted-living centers that cater to the moderately infirm. Like anywhere, though, seniors here are loath to give up their independence. For some, the alternative is squalor.

On a late-summer morning, Juliette Allen, 64, was sitting calmly among the roaches that crawled around her dank apartment. Her home nursing-care company had sent over an exterminator, who was spraying the walls. The heat was sweltering; Allen said her social worker was trying to find an air conditioner.

Allen's husband, John, 75, was in the hospital with heart and lung trouble. Allen said she and her husband weren't ready for assisted living. Their 9th Ward home was badly damaged; reconstruction was to begin soon but was not expected to be complete until Christmas.

Joyce Simms Wood, 77, also refuses to go to a nursing home. She prefers to stay alone in a trailer in front of her damaged house in a ghostly New Orleans East neighborhood.

Wood can barely walk. The handicapped ramp that the government built her is useless, she says, because it has steps. A church group came by to gut her house, but Wood suspected them of stealing and ran them off. A Meals on Wheels truck brings her food.

"A nursing home," Wood growled, "is a slaughterhouse."

Other seniors have had better luck and better health, and are patiently rebuilding. Former merchant seaman Andrew Frick, 83, has faced down some sad times living alone in a government trailer in Meraux, a suburb. But he has arranged for his house to be remodeled in Chalmette and expects to be home before long.

Former handyman Charles Taylor, 81, knows that fixing Katrina's damage will be his life's last job. He has stomach and liver cancer, he says, and only six months to live. He has been slowly restoring his modest 9th Ward duplex for the relatives who will survive him.

His age and condition have made the work slow and painful.

"But I ain't going to stop, though," he said. "I might die, but I ain't going to give up."

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For more survivors' stories, see Pages A10-11.

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