Thursday, February 28, 2008

Some survivors listed on Katrina memorial

Uriel Little jokes that he had to pinch himself when he saw his name etched on a granite monument listing the names of more than 130 people killed by Hurricane Katrina in St. Bernard Parish.

"Rumors of my death have been greatly exaggerated," quipped Little, 76, a former St. Bernard street department worker who evacuated before Katrina.

Parish officials have fielded complaints about misspelled names after the hastily erected monument was unveiled on Katrina's first anniversary in 2006. But this is the first reported case of mistaken identity among the 132 people listed as having died during the storm and its aftermath.

"They can leave my name on there if they want," said Little, who lives at St. Margaret's Daughters Nursing Home in the Bywater. "It doesn't bother me. I know that I'm still alive, and that's what counts."

But parish officials say they intend to correct the error, especially after learning that as many as five other people listed on the monument might still be alive.

"Misspelled names are one thing, but if we have a living person listed as dead, that's something else," said Karen Turni Bazile, executive assistant for Parish President Craig Taffaro. "It's not right to leave it like that."

Parish officials said the mistakes on the memorial, which sits near a 13-foot-tall steel crucifix pounded into the shallows of the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet at Shell Beach, reflect the monumental task of trying to identify Katrina's dead after their relatives were scattered across the country.

"It's not as simple as people might think," said Bryan Bertucci, the parish's coroner. "I spent months researching this and never could come up with a list that was 100 percent complete and accurate."

Compounding the problem, Bertucci said the list he compiled was apparently not even used in creating the memorial.

He said the monument names six people, including Little, who are not on his master list of deaths, raising the possibility that as many as five other Katrina survivors were mistakenly listed among the dead.

Bertucci also said 13 people he confirmed as Katrina victims are not on the monument, which was erected by the administration of former Parish President Henry "Junior" Rodriguez.

"I don't know what list they used, but it couldn't have been mine," Bertucci said.

Charlie Reppel, Rodriguez's former chief of staff, said parish officials did their best to verify the names of the dead as they worked quickly to complete the monument in time for the storm's first anniversary.

"We did as much due diligence as we could," he said, adding that he believed Bertucci's list was used to create the monument. "We adjusted it about four months after it was dedicated to add a few names of people who were left off."

Bazile said anyone seeking to report an incorrect spelling or other error can call her at (504) 874-0980 or e-mail her at

It's unclear how Little's name came to be added to the monument. His sister, Sylvia Costanza, said her brother's name appeared on lists of Katrina's dead printed in local newspapers.

"I called the parish to tell them that he was alive, but his name kept popping up on these lists," she said.

Little, who was living in the Hannan Manor elderly living center in Meraux, evacuated to Texas with relatives before Katrina. He lived at an assisted living center in Marrero until he moved to St. Margaret's about a month ago, Costanza said.

News of Little's prematurely documented demise was first reported by the Clarion Herald, the newspaper for the Archdiocese of New Orleans, which runs St. Margaret's.

"He's getting a kick out of his 15 minutes of fame," said Jason Hemel, St. Margaret's chief operating officer. "I was joking with him about being a celebrity with his picture on the front page of the Clarion Herald, and he said, 'I'm today's Clark Gable. Don't you think I look like him?'¤"

Ora Price, a receptionist at St. Margaret's, said Little took pleasure in autographing copies of the newspaper for the staff and other residents.

"He came in with two pens and said, 'I'm going to run out of ink,'¤" she said.

But Little is quick to temper his wisecracks with somber reflections about the long list of names on the monument.

"I just wish the rest could have gotten out," he said. "A lot of people didn't make it, and I knew a good many of them."