VIOLET, La. – An old fisherman saw them last, on mattresses floating at the ceiling in St. Rita’s Nursing Home, water rising fast under them.

On his first trip, he’d gotten the Alonzo brothers out, Gene and Carlo, men he’d fished with in the Gulf of Mexico for years. With panic and Hurricane Katrina setting in, he made a second trip to get Jimmy Martinez’s aging wife Peggy.

But as the hurricane made landfall on Aug. 29, luck ran out for 67-year-old Tony Buffone and everyone else in St. Rita’s. It was his third trip to the lonely brick building, which was flooding with merciless speed like the mangrove swamp around it.

“When they went back in there, them people in there were a foot from the ceiling on mattresses,” said Ronald Michael Robin, 69, aboard the fishing boat Invincible Vance, where Buffone returned in shock to weather the storm. “They couldn’t get them out.”

On Friday, private contractors in decontamination suits removed some 30 bodies from the nursing home, as dumbstruck parish and state officials considered charges against the home’s operators.

Numb from the extent of the devastation east of New Orleans in St. Bernard Parish, officials here moved Friday to find anyone who might be left alive in the place. They found even fewer than Thursday. The hope was that everyone escaped beforehand.

Officials said no home in St. Bernard Parish was spared. Katrina’s storm surge or levee breaks the next day flooded every home in every town. The town of Chalmette also faced chemical contamination Friday. A damaged oil refinery had leaked heavy crude into neighborhood streets and an adjoining bayou.

But what happened at St. Rita’s couldn’t be pushed out of mind.

“These people submitted a plan for evacuation, but didn’t implement it,” said an anguished Henry Rodriguez Jr., president of the parish.

A formal tally of who had perished in the nursing home was elusive, but it was more than 30, officials said. Mortuary workers began the removal Wednesday, but stopped short after a handful of bodies were taken out.

No work was done Thursday, infuriating locals. On Friday, private contractors from Houston arrived to finish the job under the eye of parish coroner Dr. Bryan Bertucci.

Dressed in white decontamination suits, masks and hip waders, they lowered body bags into a flat green boat, which they towed to Louisiana Highway 46.

Unmarked minivans waited for the bodies at the shoulder of the road. Colorado National Guardsmen from the 220th Military Police Co. guarded the process, shooing away visitors and rushing even other responders past the scene.

So far, 67 deaths have been confirmed in St. Bernard Parish. It was the same number Thursday. Rodriguez’s assistant, Alan Abidiem said emergency workers still had to get to many of the rural towns and fishing villages in the parish, an alluvial peninsula that juts into the Gulf of Mexico near the mouth of the Mississippi River.

In the once-populated places closer to New Orleans – Chalmette, Meraux, St. Bernard Grove and Violet – all was a ghost town. Nothing moved except for lonely rescue workers, starving dogs covered in muck, or snowy egrets and other swamp life slowly recovering from the flood.

Brightly colored children’s toys sat on rooftops. Cars were upended and leaning against fences. In the sweltering heat, Guardsmen knocking on doors in Chalmette had sweat filling up the boots of their hip waders. Their fingers got pruney under green surgical gloves.

“National Guard! Anybody here?” called Sgt. Luke James of the 2nd Battalion, 157th Field Artillery Regiment from Denver.

No one called back, but the homes offered answer enough. Either no one was there, or no one alive was there.

When doors were open, James would squeeze into the dank, oily homes. In the street, ankle deep in foul-smelling ooze, Staff Sgt. Jacob Downs wrote the home’s address in a green notebook. His team moved on.

“We haven’t really seen anyone,” he said. “Just a bunch of dogs.”

In one house, the windows were intact, but the Venetian blinds inside were twisted by furniture that swirled through a living room suddenly turned into an aquarium.

At another, the front door had been blown in by the force of the water. It tore up the carpet and tore down the ceiling. James stumbled and crawled over furniture, kitchen appliances and what were once walls and ceilings.

“Clear!” he shouted out.

The force of the floodwaters had also taken its toll on the Merrick Cemetery off Highway 46. Vaults in the cemetery were upended like blocks, tossing rusted caskets onto the soggy ground. Graves dug into the shifting ground had bubbled open.

In the Violet canal, with wrecked fishing boats and the flotsam of the storm around him, Robin (pronounced with the Cajun ro-BAN) brewed a pot of coffee and marveled that his family’s fleet of four boats had weathered yet another hurricane.

Robin had spent the hurricane aboard the Vance, with 15 others including Buffone (bo-fuh-NAY) and a man he found in the worst of the hurricane, the “poor thing floating, holding onto a rope.” Dozens of people had crawled over levees in high winds to reach the Little Rick, another sturdy boat, said Robin. No one had forced the locals to leave, he said.

When the winds started to blow, they knew to look for the salty fishermen at anchor well inland.

“The only ones that stay back are the fishermens that can fight. I’ve been on the water since I was that high,” he said, holding his hand at his thigh. “I survive “em all.”


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