Who's to Blame for a Katrina Tragedy?

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Erich Schlegel / Dallas Morning News / Corbis

A room at St. Rita's Nursing Home shortly after after Hurricane Katrina. The owners are being tried in the deaths of 34 of the home's residents.

St. Francisville, Louisiana, a sleepy, Spanish moss-draped town of 1,800 in the heart of what tourism officials have dubbed Plantation Country, was well out of strike range when Hurricane Katrina devastated much of the state two years ago. Its downtown is a dense collection of graceful buildings, many dating back to the 18th century, which are still as carefully preserved and nurtured as the town's air of Old South gentility. But beginning this week St. Francisville finds itself at the center of a media storm, playing host to a controversial trial over the deaths of 35 nursing home residents in the wake of Katrina, and the town's sense of decorum and good manners will be put to the test.

Among the countless images of suffering that lay in Katrina's wake, flooded St. Rita's nursing home in the New Orleans suburb of St. Bernard Parish, was one of the most harrowing. The owners of the nursing home, Salvador and Mabel Mangano — 67 and 65, respectively — quickly came to be seen as villains in the tragedy for choosing not to evacuate their residents, and now they face charges of negligent homicide. The trial was moved to this town on the banks of the Mississippi River north of Baton Rouge after defense lawyers claimed their clients couldn't get a fair trial in St. Bernard Parish.

The change of venue isn't the only thing that has changed in two years. While many, including several potential jurors who came before State District Judge Jerome Winsberg earlier this week, believe the Manganos are responsible for the deaths, there is a growing consensus that blame for all post-Katrina woes lies at the feet of the federal government, which built the flood-control system that was supposed to protect South Louisiana's low-lying areas in the first place. The defense maintains that the Manganos thought it better to offer shelter to residents rather than put them through the trauma of evacuation, and that they were so confident that the nursing home was safe that they extended the offer to staffers and their own family members. The nursing home sat on ground that did not sustain heavy flooding during Betsy, the 1965 hurricane that swamped much of St. Bernard Parish, and in fact appeared to have escaped Katrina's fury moments after the storm passed — until breached and overtopped levees sent a torrent of water through the parish.

The Manganos could also benefit from growing public antipathy to Louisiana Attorney General Charles Foti, whose office is prosecuting the case. Foti's public approval rating has plummeted since the arrest one year ago of two Memorial Medical Center nurses and surgeon Anna Pou, whom Foti accused of murdering patients in the days following Katrina. The public rallied around the health care workers, and New Orleans District Attorney Eddie Jordan dropped the second-degree murder and murder conspiracy charges last month after a grand jury decided not to indict Pou.

The Manganos, who face potential prison terms of more than 400 years each, do not have the public support that Pou and the nurses did. But the earlier case has added one more curious angle to the trial, which defense lawyers will clearly try to capitalize on in their arguments that this is an unreasonable prosecution. "It's unusual from the outset, because most cases of negligent homicide aren't prosecuted criminally, they're dealt with in the civil courts," says Dane Ciolino, a law professor at Loyola University in New Orleans. "Another unusual aspect is the whole backdrop of the attorney general's office vigorously prosecuting the case on the heels of a stinging defeat in the Memorial hospital case. Some look at this as Charles Foti trying to vindicate himself after the Memorial debacle."

Prosecutors will argue that, even if the Manganos never expected or intended anyone to die, they are still responsible for not heeding mandatory evacuation orders. The defense will counter that the state should have had procedures in place to evacuate those most in need, and have issued subpoenas for Louisiana Governor Kathleen Babineaux Blanco's and former U.S. Army Corps of Engineers commander Lt. Gen. Carl Strock, whose agency was responsible for the levee system. "The whole theme here is that this is the government's fault, including the Corps and the governor," Ciolino says.

Whether or not it works for the defense will be determined over the next few weeks. Even if acquitted, the Manganos still face more than 30 lawsuits from families of residents who died at St. Rita's.