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His clients were drowning in a ‘Flood of Lies’

“Flood of Lies: The St. Rita’s Nursing Home Tragedy” by James A. Cobb Jr. (Pelican, 334 pages, $24.95)

It has been eight years since Hurricane Katrina devastated the city of New Orleans and the surrounding region. Many lives were lost. At the St. Rita’s Nursing Home 34 residents died when a massive wall of water inundated the facility.

A few media outlets sensationalized this tragedy. Some referred to Sal and Mabel Mangano, the elderly couple who owned St. Rita’s, as the “Monsters of Hurricane Katrina.” Jim Cobb, a lawyer from New Orleans, heard the news coverage and was astonished by the level of vitriol being directed toward the Manganos.

Little did he know.

Cobb and his family were like many other dislocated residents of New Orleans. Their house had flooded. They were forced to relocate to a hotel in Houston.

They had just gotten settled in when Cobb heard from some potential clients that really needed a good lawyer. You guessed it, Cobb was asked to represent the Manganos.

He met with them to start the painful process of attempting to establish and comprehend the exact chain of events that preceded the hurricane’s landfall and the subsequent course of action they took as the disaster transpired. As he was meeting with the Manganos the attorney general of the State of Louisiana was investigating the potential for criminal charges to be filed against them.

Cobb didn’t believe that his clients would have to face criminal charges. St. Rita’s Nursing Home had been prepared for a hurricane. They had not experienced serious flooding during previous storms. The Manganos were concerned that any possible evacuation of the facility might be more life threatening to some of their frail residents than a hurricane might be. They decided to hunker down and stay put during Katrina.

Cobb’s instincts regarding potential prosecution proved wrong. The State of Louisiana issued an arrest warrant for them. Cobb informed them that “the warrant charges both of you with 34 counts of negligent homicide in connection with the deaths of your residents.”

Suddenly Cobb was defending the so-called “Monsters of Hurricane Katrina.” He knew that he needed help. He enlisted some gifted barristers to assist him in their defense.

Readers of “Flood of Lies” are in for an action-packed immersion inside what became the biggest criminal trial of that period. This true crime page-turner morphs into a sizzling legal thriller.

Do you remember the St. Rita’s Nursing Home tragedy? Many of us do. It was a huge story. Do you recall the actual outcome of the trial of the Manganos for negligent homicide? Probably not. I talked to Jim Cobb recently, and he told me that 80 percent of the people he asks don’t really remember what the final decision of the court was in this case.

Jim Cobb remembers every fascinating detail; the jury selection, the testimony of expert witnesses and the angry mob. In “Flood of Lies: The St. Rita’s Nursing Home Tragedy” he takes us through many of the ingenious aspects of building a defense for two people who had been trashed in the court of public opinion. He never lost faith in their innocence.

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