[This broadcast originally aired on Feb. 2, 2008.]
After Hurricane Katrina had passed over southeastern Louisiana in August 2005, many people thought the region had been spared from the most severe damage.
But the worst was yet to come: the region's protective levees started to fail, and entire communities were overwhelmed by floodwaters.
Thousands had evacuated the region, but others stayed behind to ride out the storm, including the residents and staff of St. Rita's Nursing Home in St. Bernard Parish.
The wall of water and its aftermath left 35 of the residents dead, and prompted negligent homicide and other charges against the owners of the nursing home.
They faced the possibility of spending the rest of their life in prison.
Would and should the owners be held responsible for their decision not to evacuate?
Correspondent Harold Dow reports.
Just southeast of New Orleans, in St. Bernard Parish, St. Rita's Nursing Home sits empty and silent. It's where Joe Galladoro and his sister Cheryl last saw their father, T.J., alive.
"To hear that my dad was left in a building, and drowned, that's just unforgivable," Cheryl says.
The people Cheryl can't forgive are the nursing home's owners, Sal and Mabel Mangano. "I was told that he would be cared for the way he needed to be cared for. And taken out of harm's way," she says.
"They lied to us and therefore my father perished," Joe adds.
The last weekend of T.J. Galladoro's life was in late August 2005. All over the Gulf Coast, preparations were being made for Katrina, the hurricane many predicted would be "the big one."
Larry Ingargiola was the director of Homeland Security for St. Bernard Parish. "I believed that we were gonna see 20, 22 feet of water," he recalls.
Parish clerk Polly Boudreaux says St. Bernard officials were desperately telling residents to leave. "There were messages over and over, not just parish government messages on our cable station, but the news media was out saying the same thing," she says.
"The reality sunk in for a vast majority of our residents Friday and Saturday. That made them pack up and go," she adds.
That Saturday night, Cheryl was checking in on her father one last time at St. Rita's, before she took her family north. "My dad looked up and calls me 'Shay.' That was a little pet name he had for me. And said, 'Shay, you coming to get me tomorrow? They have a hurricane coming,'" she remembers. "I looked at him and I said, 'Well, dad, you know. You're going to be taken care of.' He listened. He heard. He knew it. But waits a little while and again, the same question came. 'Shay, you coming to get me tomorrow?'"
Cheryl knew it was too risky to move her frail father herself, so she was relying on St. Rita's to take him out of harm's way.
"One of the nurses came in. Sat on a chair. Knee to knee with me. Held my hands. And she said, 'Cheryl, you need to go. And no, don't worry about your dad. The home has an evacuation in plan. He'll be fine. You need to leave your dad with us, because you're not able to tend to his needs.' I was crying and she kept assuring me, 'This is where your dad needs to be, he will be taken care of,'" Cheryl says.
Also relying on St. Rita's to take care of his mother, Eva, was Tom Rodrigue, an emergency management official in neighboring Jefferson Parish. But Rodrigue was having trouble getting in touch with the Manganos.
"I called at least twice on Saturday. I asked if they were available, and they told me they were not available to come and talk on the phone. So and when I hung up, I called the emergency manager for St. Bernard who I knew. I spoke with him, and he told me, 'Hey, tomorrow they're gonna call for a mandatory evacuation. They'll have to respond,'" Rodrigue remembers.
By Sunday morning, Aug. 28, Katrina was churning through the Gulf and upgraded to a category 5 hurricane, the most dangerous kind. At 8 a.m., parish officials broadcast their starkest warning yet to those who might still be in the parish. "You need to leave. You must leave St. Bernard Parish and head north," they warned.
But just after that message was broadcast, parish officials learned that St. Rita's nursing home had still not evacuated. "It was shocking," says Polly Boudreaux. "I think we were all mortified that, you know, at that stage that they would still be there."
"Did you want St. Rita's to evacuate your mom and all the other residents?" Dow asks Rodrigue.
"Absolutely," he says. "I really never had any options. I had to depend on them."
Boudreaux was ordered to call Mabel Mangano to see if St. Rita's needed buses to evacuate. "Her comment was that they were concerned about the condition of the very frail patients, that if they put them on the buses, those who were the most frail would not survive the trip on the bus," Boudreaux says.
Later that morning, parish coroner Dr. Bryan Bertucci called St. Rita's again. "I spoke to Mabel, and told her that I had two buses that could take the residents wherever she wanted. The response that I got was that, 'We have five special needy patients, five nurses, two generators. And I've spoken to most of the families, and they said we could stay.' My response was, 'Do you want the buses, or do you not want the buses?' The answer was no," he says.
But by Sunday night, as the storm closed in, Cheryl Galladoro was hundreds of miles away, still thinking she had left her frail and sickly 82-year-old father in good hands. "When I kissed my dad goodbye, I didn't know that that would be for the last time I would ever kiss him goodbye. He had a look on his face like, you know, 'You're leaving me,'" she remembers.