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Who's accountable for Katrina's victims?

A trip to see my mom in the nursing home where she stayed the last three years of her life was always interesting — a little sad and a little funny.

She lived in the Alzheimer's unit, winding down among strangers who had, like her, led very interesting and accomplished lives.

You could browse their stories in the "me boxes" posted outside their doors. Those were small display cases in which family members were encouraged to place items that helped tell the story of the rooms' residents, who could no longer tell their own stories.

There was the concert-caliber pianist, the brilliant doctor, the much-loved housewife who had dozens of grandchildren.

A walk down the hall was even more informative.

Someone once put a cardboard cutout of President Bush in the hallway, and one man in particular would spend hours talking to it.

A little-bitty woman, so small she never approached my shoulder height, liked to linger outside the door to the dining room, which had a glass panel in it. If the light hit the door just right, she'd see her reflection in that window, spending hours chatting with her "twin."

I liked to bring my girls, who were just toddlers when Mom went to live there. That's a great age for visiting nursing homes, very wide-eyed and accepting. They were like princesses, wandering down the halls gathering hugs and kisses from these funny strangers.

That's what I remember most. The love.

Some of them had forgotten their own names, could no longer feed themselves, were really quite helpless. But despite bouts of confusion or agitation, they never forgot how to love, and they lavished it on anyone who was kind to them.

That love has haunted me ever since word came out of Louisiana that 34 people were found dead in a nursing home in St. Bernard Parish outside New Orleans in the aftermath of Katrina.

I don't know if they were Alzheimer's patients. I almost hope they were, so they didn't understand the dire straits they were in before the floodwaters claimed them. I wept along with thousands of others who heard an official in Jefferson Parish describe a son promising his mother that someone "would come" to rescue her from her nursing home, where water was rising along with the terror of those stuck there. The official cried as he concluded the story. "Friday, she drowned."

I do know that the people left behind in any nursing home were helplessly frail or they wouldn't have been in a nursing home to begin with. Nice as some nursing homes are, it's not a choice you make unless you have no other options. And nursing homes are not easy to get into or to afford, either.

In this type of crisis, nursing home residents would be as helpless as newborns in a hospital nursery. And one assumes that those who care for them would know that better than anyone.

Prosecutors have announced they're charging the nursing-home owners with a count of negligent homicide in each death. They had opportunities to rescue these frail seniors, to take them to higher, drier, safer ground, and they didn't, the officials say.

We'll have to wait to see how the trial comes out. Maybe the owners will be able to prove, somehow, that they believed the nursing home was safer than the bus ride. Regardless, they're not the only ones who should be held accountable.

Nearly as vulnerable as those left in the nursing home were those too poor to flee on their own, including the homeless, the mentally ill, the children living with their parents in dire poverty. They were abandoned, too, forced into situations where they were painfully vulnerable to rape and robbery and, in some cases, murder. You have to wonder whether someone shouldn't take some responsibility for what happened to them.

Seems like officials had the warning, the buses and the opportunity to take some of them to higher, drier, safer ground, too, but it didn't happen.

One of the most memorable pieces of video to come out of this nightmare is a news clip of two policewomen looting a Wal-Mart along with some of the neighborhood thugs. They weren't taking shoes and clothing to distribute at shelters or food to give to homebound elderly. They were pushing a cart down the aisle picking household items, choosing with care the color and design.

When one realized a news crew was filming her, she tried to bluster a bit, indicating the newsman was a looter for being in the store. When he didn't back down, she went back to shopping.

I hope she'll be held accountable, too.

Most of us choose our jobs. And when we choose jobs that give us power over someone's life — as police, as nursing home operators, as public officials — we're agreeing to step up and take responsibility. Not run away. Or go shopping.


Deseret Morning News staff writer Lois M. Collins may be reached by e-mail at lois@desnews.com.