Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Benilda "Benny" Caixeta remembered

This is, of course, the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina hitting New Orleans. It was later in the day a year ago when the levees around New Orleans failed and the city was flooded. There has been a tendency to think of this as a large natural disaster, but in reality it was a massive engineering failure — the levees were designed to withstand a category 3 storm, but Katrina was a category 3 when it finally made landfall.

No one has really been held accountable for the disaster, which is what usually happens when the problem was a massive systemic collapse. Probably no one will be. Instead of dwelling on blame, I want to talk about one of Katrina's victims, one of about 1,600 Louisianians who died in the flooding.

Her name was Benilda Caixeta, known as Benny by her friends. Alana knew Benny. They were acquaintances. Benny and Alana were both involved in the Medicaid Purchase Plan program and attended many of the same meetings. MPP allows people with disabilities to purchase Medicaid even though they are working and would otherwise not qualify. Alana was once photographed at an MPP function standing beside Benny.

Benny had muscular dystrophy. She was confined to a motorized wheelchair. She could not drive, and she could not easily travel very far without special vehicular assistance. In short, she was one of the people who stayed behind in New Orleans when the hurricane hit because she had no other option.

She drowned in her apartment when she couldn't escape the rising flood water.

It's hard for me to recount the story of her death. Instead, I will simply cut and paste a portion of a story about her. The story says much about what she was like as a person. It was Eileen Kelley of the Cincinnati Enquirer.


"Save yourself and tell them I'm dead," Benilda "Benny" Caixeta pleaded with her caretaker, Rita Bailey.

Bailey grabbed the cell phone and a small pocket calendar filled with the names and telephone numbers of many of Caixeta's closet friends. Included in that group was Pam Sattari, 45, of Anderson Township.

"Please help us," Bailey implored from New Orleans.

Sattari couldn't believe it.

If anyone would be rescued in New Orleans, surely it would have to be the elderly or those not able to take care of themselves — like her friend, confined to a wheelchair with muscular dystrophy.

Caixeta and Sattari spoke in the days leading up to the storm. They spoke again the day Katrina hit.

"Oh my God, water is coming in," Caixeta told Sattari, a New Orleans native and close friend for 24 years, during their last conversation. "Water."

And that was it.

The line went dead.

Four days after the levees broke, Bailey was rescued from the top floor of the apartment building.

A crew of Brazilian filmmakers found Caixeta's body in her first-floor apartment.

They were not allowed to remove it.

On Oct. 8, Caixeta's body was taken to a makeshift morgue, where it stayed until late December, when it was released to friends.

"I never dreamed in all my life that this would happen. There is always the threat of hurricanes down there. But Benny had a lot of good friends down there and you would have thought that if anyone could have got out of it, it was her," Sattari said.

Caixeta would have been 52 in July.

Sattari has gone home twice to honor her friend. She cries easily when she thinks of how Caixeta died and how her friend begged her caretaker, a woman deathly afraid of water, to save herself.

She still cries when she talks about how a storm so far away could have such an impact here. "I never dreamed I would be part of something like this," she said.

Many others didn't either.

I've been reading about Katrina recently. No one has yet been truly held accountable for what happened in New Orleans. Michael Brown was fired as FEMA director, but he managed to rehabilitate his reputation somewhat by showing that he had informed his superiors of what was happening. Go back and read the timeline, though, and you'll see that Brown was still incompetent. He just wasn't as incompetent as we first thought. Michael Chertoff, head of Homeland Security, hasn't been held accountable. Ray Nagin, mayor of New Orleans, was re-elected. Governor Kathleen Blanco and President George Bush are still serving out their terms.

No one will really be held accountable for Katrina. That's not what's important, though. What is important is that something like Katrina doesn't happen again. We must remember Benny and the almost 2,000 other people who perished in a disaster that could have, should have, been a lot less disastrous.

For a timeline of events a year ago, see the Hurricane Katrina Timeline article on the Shreveport Times web site and Salon's Katrina Timeline article.

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