“The Loved Ones” (31 Longreads in 31 Days, Day 31)

The best narrative nonfiction tells true stories with the crafts and elements of a short story, and that’s exactly what Tom Junod delivers in “The Loved Ones,” published in the September 2006 issue of Esquire.

It looks at the tragedy at St. Rita’s nursing home in New Orleans, where 35 residents died in the floods of Hurricane Katrina, and the charges of negligent homicide filed against the its owners, Sal and Mabel Mangano. It is a story rich with conflict, complex characters, and broader themes and ideas. It asks more than who was to blame; it considers the role we give to those who care for our elderly, the power and impact of mass media to distory the truth, and the cultural need for blame.

Abandoned wheelchairs and a flooded hallway at St. Rita's Nursing Home

Photo: The New York Times

Junod takes the time to make the people in the story vivid and real. Case in point: the Mangano’s if-he-wasn’t-real-you’d-think-Hollywood-invented-him defense lawyer, Jim Cobb. Here, he talks about one of the witness some think will send the Manganos to jail:

“Did you see Bertucci’s testimony?” he’s saying as he’s driving. “Was it good for my case? Fuuuuuuuck. It was awesome for my case. It was so good, I’m considering jerking off while reading it.” For one of the civil lawsuits against the Manganos, Cobb has just taken the deposition of Dr. Bryan Bertucci, the elected coroner of St. Bernard Parish and the man Cobb regards as the state’s star witness in its case against the Manganos. It was Bertucci, you see, who offered St. Rita’s two school buses for use in an evacuation, and Bertucci who told the world of the nursing home’s disastrous reply: No. “The state is trying to prove that Sal and Mabel were negligent,” Cobb says. “That means willful, wanton, reckless disregard. So I ask him, ‘Have you ever witnessed them treat their patients in a careless manner?’ ‘No.’ ‘In a negligent manner?’ ‘No.’ ‘In a reckless manner?’ ‘No.’ I mean, I’m practically reading from the statute, man. But wait, it gets better. He says, ‘No, as a matter of fact, in my opinion they ran the best nursing home in the parish.’ All right? This is their freaking witness.”

Later, we see Cobb in his own home, also mostly destroyed by Katrina. Junod does a fine job describing the scene. As Cobb surveys the destruction, he rages against the district attorney for prosecuting the Manganos:

There’s a lot of mold in Lakeview, indeed a lot of mold in Jim Cobb’s house, scavenging black mold with the characteristics of fire, stoked in the foul remnants of flood. Floodwater still fills his pool, still fills his crawfish pots and his turkey fryer, and he’s uncharacteristically quiet while he’s in his house, until he goes outside and starts walking toward the lake, where the vista opens to the wartime view: the black helicopters hovering static over what passes for a levee, the X’s spray-painted hastily on the doors of the houses, the occasional 1 or 2 mixed in with the zeros, noting how many bodies were found inside.

“You know who died in these houses?” Cobb says. “Old people. The storm wasn’t a black thing or a white thing; it was an old thing. Sixty-five percent of those who died were over sixty-five. Forty percent were over seventy-five. It was a complete fucking catastrophe for old people. And what does the attorney general do about it? Who are the people he arrests? Two senior citizens, Sal and Mabel Mangano. He arrests them for neglect while Michael Brown and Ray Nagin and Kathleen Blanco and Michael Chertoff and George W. Bush get a pass? No fucking way, man. They’ll have to kill me first.”

This is a story overflowing with anger. Anger from Cobb. Anger from the children of victims who drowned in St. Rita’s. Anger from talking heads on 24/7 news channels. Anger from the Manganos’ son, “Little Sal,” who rails against the lies repeated against his parents.

Junod paints a very sympathetic picture of the Manganos, detailing their attentive care of their residents, the extra efforts they made to care for those who didn’t have close family or relatives. He doesn’t excuse their decision not to evacuate the nursing home before Katrina hit, but he tries to understand why they decided to stay.

He recounts the harrowing and frantic events of the hours that water began to flood the home, and the Manganos’ desperate efforts to rescue their residents.

But he also paints a gruesome other side of the story, the perspective of Steve Gallodoro, who tried to return St Rita’s after the flood to rescue his father, and what he saw:

“I swam into the water,” Steve Gallodoro says. “I couldn’t open the glass door, so I had them bring me to the patio area. I climbed up on the patio; it had three feet of water, one of them glass doors was broken, and as I was walking to the door, I came across a body. I moved the body around to see sort of who it was, and it was an elderly female. I walked into a doorway, and as soon as I stepped in the doorway, there was another body floating. It was another female. I was in the TV room of the lobby in the north wing, and I came across another body about ten feet later, another elderly female. There was four feet of water or so, beds floating, furniture floating. It would have been impossible for me to walk any farther down the hallways. I hollered, ‘Fire Department, is anybody here, does anybody need help?’ and it just echoed.”

“The Loved Ones” offer no black and white answers, no easy-to-spot heroes or villains. It is a thoughtful, beautifully written look the moral complexity of a tragedy that was played for cheap melodrama on cable television. It underscores the depth and scope of loss in New Orleans in the aftermath of Katrina. Almost everyone in the story lost something in the water.

Junod seems to ask if there’s much more that can be taken from the Manganos that Katrina didn’t already wash away.

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