NEW ORLEANS – The husband-and-wife owners of a nursing home were charged with homicide because they did not evacuate 34 elderly patients who died after Hurricane Katrina (search) struck, the first major criminal case related to the storm's still-rising death toll.
For Louisiana (search) alone, the toll surged by more than half Tuesday to 423, and officials fear the numbers could climb as floodwaters recede and more of the city becomes accessible to search teams.
"It's the water. Everything is driven by the water," said Lt. Col. Mike Thompson of the Oklahoma National Guard (search).
Including deaths in four other states, Katrina's overall toll stood at 659.
Authorities said the toll would have been lower if Salvador and Mable Mangano, owners of the St. Rita's nursing home in town of Chalmette, had heeded warnings to evacuate their patients as Katrina came ashore Aug. 29.
"The pathetic thing in this case was that they were asked if they wanted to move them and they did not," said Louisiana Attorney General Charles Foti. "They were warned repeatedly that this storm was coming. In effect, their inaction resulted in the deaths of these people."
The Manganos were released on $50,000 bond each; each of the 34 counts against them carries up to five years in prison. Their attorney, Jim Cobb, said his clients were innocent and had waited for a mandatory evacuation order from the officials of St. Bernard Parish that never came.
Cobb said the Manganos were forced to make a difficult decision as Katrina approached: risk the health of the patients — many of them frail and on feeding tubes — in an evacuation, or keep them comfortable at the home through the storm.
Tom Rodrigue, whose mother died in the home, was not satisfied. "She deserved the chance, you know, to be rescued instead of having to drown like a rat," he said.
The attorney general is also investigating the discovery of more than 40 corpses at flooded-out Memorial Medical Center in New Orleans. A hospital official said the 106-degree heat inside the hospital as the patients waited for days to be evacuated likely contributed to their deaths.
On Tuesday, President Bush said he took responsibility for the fitful federal response to the devastation. New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin was asked on ABC's "Good Morning America" if he took responsibility for the city's response.
"I'm going to be a man about this. Whatever I did, whatever I could have done better, I'm going to stand up and history will judge me accordingly," he said in an interview broadcast Wednesday.
"But let's make sure that as we analyze what Ray Nagin as mayor did, let's look at what everybody in authority (did) so that this never happens again in this country."
The updated Louisiana death toll was released as Gov. Kathleen Blanco lashed out at the federal government, accusing it of moving too slowly in recovering the bodies. The dead "deserve more respect than they have received," she said.
However, Federal Emergency Management Agency spokesman David Passey said the state asked to take over body recovery last week. "The collection of bodies is not normally a FEMA responsibility," he said.
Not all the news was grim. The New Orleans airport reopened to commercial flights, the port resumed operations far earlier than expected, and Nagin said dry sections of the city — including the French Quarter and central business district — could be reopened as early as Monday, provided the Environmental Protection Agency determines the air is safe to breathe.
"We're bringing New Orleans back," Nagin said. "We're bringing this culture back. We're bringing this music back. I'm tired of hearing these helicopters. I want to hear some jazz."
Nagin said the city doesn't have the cash to keep paying its employees and was working "feverishly" with banks and federal officials to secure a line of credit to get the city through the end of the year.
Local authorities have been issuing more passes allowing residents to return to the city for the day to check on their businesses, save vital records and retrieve data from computers — although some people arriving by a highway south of the city had to endure a four-hour wait at a checkpoint.
Nagin hoped other evacuees scattered across the country also would return, despite speculation that some would prefer to settle in their new towns rather than face the chore of rebuilding in New Orleans.
"I know New Orleaneans. Once the beignets start cooking up again and the gumbo is in the pots and red beans and rice are served on Monday — in New Orleans, and not where they are — they're going to be back," Nagin said.
The Army Corps of Engineers reported significant progress pumping out flooded areas of New Orleans and neighboring parishes. The pumps are removing more than 9 billion gallons a day, the Corps said.
Col. Duane Gapinski estimated that half of the flooded area or less was still under water, and the city was on target to be almost completely drained by Oct. 8. More than 40 pumping stations were operating, including the city's biggest pump.
"That will change the world as we know it," Nagin said.
The news was more gloomy to the east in St. Bernard Parish, where more than 90 percent of an 17-foot-high levee is damaged and nobody will be allowed to return for four months.
"I think about 95 percent of the parish was under water. I would say it's pretty well destroyed," said Col. Richard Baumy of the St. Bernard Parish Sheriff's Office. "You've got to see it to believe it."
Dan Packer, chief executive of Entergy New Orleans, said the company had restored power to 75 percent of the 1.1 million customers who were out at the height of the storm, mostly in Mississippi and areas of Louisiana north and west of New Orleans.
Packer said about 264,000 customers were without power Tuesday afternoon, largely in the metro New Orleans area. He said all of the central business district and French Quarter should have power back within two weeks.
Two hospitals in parts of town that remained dry could reopen soon, another requirement for residents to be allowed back permanently.