Hurricane Katrina was headed towards New Orleans. But Helen Carey told family members she wouldn't leave the seniors apartment building where she lived alone.
She'd just turned 78 the day before the storm. And she was beginning to show some signs of mild dementia.
A few days after the Hurricane Katrina, family members showed up with food. But Helen Carey was gone. Her family had no idea where.
Now, 17 months after the hurricane, she's finally been found – five months after the government center set up to reunite families separated by Hurricane Katrina closed down.
"If she was alive, I was going to find her," said Georgia Gandy, Helen Carey's cousin. They grew up together in New Orleans. Gandy, who's 69, lives near Atlanta now.
It turns out a few days after Katrina. Helen Carey had been evacuated to a shelter — with thousands of others — on an Air Force base near San Antonio.
The family didn't know that. By the time they found out, she'd been moved again.
When Georgia Gandy called the shelter, a volunteer said Helen Carey had left one thing behind. Her purse.
The volunteer at the shelter packed it up — with Carey's Social Security card, family pictures, and $500 — and mailed it to Georgia Gandy.
"Oh, the purse brought tears to my eyes. The purse was kind of dirty and the straps was like .... Oh it was worn and torn," Gandy said. "When I saw the purse I could tell that she wasn't in her right mind. Because she was a very neat and clean person, well dressed, she would never have a pocket book of that nature."
Gandy figured her cousin's dementia must have gotten worse under all the stress.
Meanwhile, Helen Carey was being moved — from the shelter, to a church, to a nursing home. Other people noticed her confusion. And several took good care of her.
But each time Carey was moved, either there was no record of where she got moved to, or the records got lost.
Ann Barks worked at the Louisiana Family Assistance Center, a state and federal program created to reunite families.
"Some of it was simply figuring out that this person over here has been reported, that they're in a shelter — or they've a person has been moved from a nursing home here to a nursing home there — and that somehow their files simply hadn't been transferred and they're family wasn't notified," she said.
When the center shut down last September, it had resolved all but 1 percent of the 13,000 cases on its missing-persons list. The last open files were sent to police departments in the places where a person was living when they were reported missing.
But Helen Carey was far from her hometown of New Orleans.
At one point, Georgia Gandy traced Carey to a nursing home in San Antonio. But before anyone got there, she'd been moved again. And the nursing home had no record of where.
Gandy had one clue to go on. Someone at the nursing home said another employee — who'd taken a liking to Helen Carey — had moved to a new job in Louisiana. And taken Carey with her.
Georgia Gandy used an old skill to track down her missing cousin.
"And I used to be a long distance telephone operator, and I knew all the little small towns across the country, so I just called everywhere I could think of," Gandy said.
Last month, the phone calls paid off. She found her cousin, sick and confused, in a hospital in a tiny town in northern Louisiana.
"I was so happy, that I found her," Gandy said. "'Cause she had been lost so many different times, and that's why we're going to pick her up today, we don't want her ever to get lost again."
Tonight, Gandy, her daughter, and son-in-law are driving 10 hours to Louisiana, to pick up Helen Carey. They've rented a special van that she can lie down in, so they can bring her back to Atlanta, to live near them.