Some Blues

The scene at the San Gabriel morgue, stopover for Katrina's dead

 For 13 days in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the body of Alcede Jackson lay on a porch at 4732 Laurel St., wrapped in a plastic bag and covered in a blanket beneath a sign quoting the evangelist John and commending Jackson to "the loving arms of Jesus." �Michelle Krupa, The Times-Picayune, September 13

They took their sweet time about it, but at a Friday, September 9 press conference, New Orleans Homeland Security Director Colomnel Terry Ebbert announced that the recovery of the "casualties" left in the wake of Hurricane Katrina (who arrived here in the early morning hours of August 29) had officially begun.

"No Press on recovery efforts, no images of corpses."
photo: Holly Northrop/
"No Press on recovery efforts, no images of corpses."

An outfit called Kenyon International Emergency Services, a longtime FEMA contractor brought in last week on a sort of brother-in-law, short-term agreement, to recover corpses from private homes and public areas, has now signed a contract with the state of Louisiana for its services�but only after days of further bureaucratic delays, because FEMA, who will reimburse the state for its payments to Kenyon, had to approve the body removal contractor before a binding agreement could be inked. Anyway, Kenyon now "officially" recovers Katrina's dead, and then the bodies are taken by refrigerated tracker trailers to a temporary morgue in the small town of St. Gabriel, just south of the state capital Baton Rouge.

There is a staff of approximately 150 forensics specialists working at the morgue, which has been set up in the Town Center complex, augmented by a small village of enormous white tents that are used for billeting and storage purposes. Because the corpses have in many cases been lying unattended for a week or more, or are being recovered from fetid, toxic flood water, they are de-contaminated as soon as they arrive at the facility.

"This is not cargo or freight that we are dealing with here," FEMA spokesman Ricardo Zuniga told me. "These people were someone's son or father or wife. They are somebody's family member, and first and foremost, we treat them with respect and dignity." The bodies are in fact given "a ritual bathing," according to Zuniga, following the tenants of the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim faiths. Next, the bodies are examined for cause of death. If Orleans Parish Coroner Frank Minyard, who oversees the operation, thinks the cause of death is not hurricane-related, he can order an autopsy. Whatever his decision, there follows the intensive identification work.

It had been made abundantly clear at the September 9 press conference in New Orleans that the Press would not be allowed to participate in any recovery efforts, so I was not surprised when I encountered a heavily-manned checkpoint at the gates of the St. Gabriel morgue. A local cop waved me toward the "Press parking area"�a narrow patch of roadside, just past a bright-yellow portable toilet and a giant bulletin board, on a large portion of which was spelled out (vertically): "NO PRESS BEYOND THIS POINT!"

As I approached the officer, he was in the face of a young guy who had some kind of credentials hanging around his neck. "The Press is only allowed on THIS side of the road," he was saying, pointing to the west side of the approach street to the morgue. "NO PRESS is allowed on THIS side of the road," he said, pointing toward the east, where, I surmised, the reporter's partner had driven an SUV behind two commercial buildings that fronted the morgue's southeast perimeter. "So, you better get her on that cell phone and tell her that if she doesn't get her ass over here immediately, she's going to jail." I did not draw the same ire from the checkpoint guards, but I drew no sympathy or helpfulness either, so I took respite from the heat at the Pastime Restaurant and Sports Bar in Baton Rouge.

Toward midnight, I drove back down to St. Gabriel, and got a reception from the checkpoint about on par with the one I had gotten earlier. There was no one to interview at that time of night. That's OK, I don't want to interview anyone. Then what am I doing there? (My vehicle is the only one in the Press parking area.) I want to know what it feels like.

After my cell phone had been inspected to make sure I could not take photographs or video with it, they left me to my own devices. Devices that eventually stood me up from the rear bumper of my rental van, where I had been scratching out notes in the spillover shine from the checkpoint's high-intensity spotlight�a searing force that hits you in the face when you turn onto Iberville St. like the whole Milky Way, condensed and all at once.

With this monster at my back, I walked down Iberville toward Hwy 30 and the railroad tracks that run along the perimeter of the morgue until I reached a spot of relative darkness, shielded by some warehouses from the massive banks of lights that illuminate St. Gabriel's 24-hour operation. I lay down on the tracks and closed my eyes and tried to clear my mind. I got down to what I really came to St. Gabriel for: to see if I could feel the dead, if I could hear them.

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