NEW ORLEANS — When a Florida man saw a news photo of a man rescued from Hurricane Isaac's floodwaters, he was sure it was his brother. It wasn't — but the mistaken identity started a search that ultimately reunited that homeless man with the two daughters he hadn't seen in 16 years.
The saga began Aug. 30, when the Associated Press published a photograph of the soaked, bearded man being helped by two rescuers in Slidell after he nearly drowned, swept away in waist-deep water. Although he has since been identified as 60-year-old Larry Bailey, his identity was then unknown.
Marcus Michels of West Melbourne called the AP's New Orleans bureau on Aug. 31, certain the man was his brother Mitchell Lee Massey, who has been missing for six years.
The AP reached out to the Louisiana Red Cross, where a spokeswoman examined the photo and was able to figure out where the rescuers were based — and the nearest shelter in Slidell.
Debbie Kemp, a Red Cross volunteer with Safe and Well, a disaster program that helps find people with medical or mental health problems, took up the search. Kemp, of Ann Arbor, Mich., called the number Bailey had given at the shelter and reached Johnny Sontag of Slidell, who gives Bailey food for doing yard work and lets Bailey stay in a trailer he owns.
"He's my buddy, so I always try and look out for him," said Sontag, who has known Bailey seven or eight years. He described Bailey as a wonderful man who often talked about his family and once explained why he hadn't eaten a lunch received from Sontag: "Oh, I gave it away. He was hungrier than me."
However, like so many other times, Bailey wasn't at the trailer. Sontag said he disappeared so often that he had a neighbor call him whenever Bailey returned.
Days later, Sontag found him, but Bailey took off again. Someone — Sontag doesn't know who — brought Bailey back to the trailer, incoherent and bleeding from a badly infected head injury. He smelled terrible and was so weak that Sontag said he had to bathe him.
Sontag didn't know where to turn. He couldn't afford medicine. He called Kemp, who told him to take Bailey to an emergency room. Doctors said Bailey would have been dead in a month without medical care, Sontag said.
As Bailey recovered, he and Kemp called Michels from the hospital, and it became clear the two men weren't related. However, the search for Bailey's family continued.
As he regained his strength, Bailey was able to recall the names of relatives and where they lived. Kemp reached his ex-wife, who told her daughters their father had been found.
Bailey had struggled for decades with bipolar disorder and substance abuse, said his daughter Heather Atkinson, 38, of Bradenton. She said her father had built a successful yard business and a house, but lost both to the alcoholism that made her and her sister stop seeing him.
Atkinson's oldest daughter was a year old when she broke off visits. "He was drinking and I couldn't have my daughter around that," she said.
When she learned he had been found, "I thought maybe when he got out of the hospital we could get him into an addiction program," said Atkinson, who now has three teenage daughters.
Bailey's other daughter, Brenda LaFlamme, of the Orlando area, came to Slidell on Sept. 11, the day Bailey was released from the hospital. She soon signed Bailey into a nursing home.
Atkinson said her father told her his skull had been fractured when he was beaten by two men in New Orleans about a month before the flood. He had been treated in an emergency room but not since, and the injury got infected, she said.
Atkinson said she calls Bailey daily, and he's shown improvement.
"All of a sudden, he was totally lucid. He said, 'It's so good to hear from you.' He said, 'I love you.' "
After so many years apart, that was overwhelming.
"He started tearing up. I started tearing up. I said, 'I love you, too. There's no reason you have to be in this situation. Make some life choices and changes and you can have your family around.' "