By Jared Chausow
By Katie Toth
By Elizabeth Flock
By Albert Samaha
By Anna Merlan
By Jon Campbell
By Jon Campbell
By Albert Samaha
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.
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 servicesï¿½but 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"ï¿½a 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 spotlightï¿½a 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.
I have met the dead before like this, supine in a physical and mental darkness, in a very small place called Dong Ha that was nestled hard up against what was in 1968 the South Vietnam side of the DMZ, where I was sent on courier duty from Danang now and again when my Marine Corps superior officers were in a particularly eager mood for me to be killed. A trip to Dong Ha was always an overnighter, and the transient barracks (a large tent) abutted the graves registration operation for all of I Corps, the northernmost sector of combat in that war. That's where the bodies came, and they came in a steady, 24-7 stream, to be tagged, bagged, and "sent home." And they came year after year, far past my tour of duty, for a long, long time.
That transient tent in Dong Ha was the eeriest and most unsettling spot I have ever visited, and it had nothing to do with machine-gun and small arms fire, with grenades and mortars, with incoming rockets. The dead were there. Their bodies were there, and their spirits were there. You could feel them. All night long, if you were listening, you could hear them, and I rarely slept there.
I didn't sleep on the tracks at St. Gabriel either. I got to my feet and dusted myself off and walked back to my van. I had not felt the dead in this place, nor had I heard them. Only their corpses are here, their casings, and they are invisible. No Press on recovery efforts, no images of corpses. Press blackout on all aspects of the morgue, no images of corpses. The symbol of "dead body" around here is a gleaming Peterbuilt pulling an insulated, odorless, refrigerated 18-wheeler trailer. This works on the same principle that holds that no images of body bags or coffins coming back from Iraq "respects the dignity" of grieving families and "softens," I guess, the collective loss. The dead you can't see become simply numbers, and numbers are clean unambiguous things. They are easier to work with than, you know, the other.
I was depressed, and not in a good mood either, as I sped along two-lane blacktops through the cane fields and pasture land of southeastern Louisiana. I slipped a Van Morrison CD into the player. It a gift from a friend who had labeled it simply "Some Blues." I had never listened to it. The second tune up was "Ordinary People," which I had heard before but had no strong remembrance of. I listened to the song once through, turned off the volume, and drove in a stunned silence for a few miles. I opened all the windows in the van, cued the song up again, put the volume to Max, and began to exceed the speed limit.
The song opens with Van singing with unfaltering passion and intensity, "Ordinary people just don't comprehend/Ordinary people just don't seem to comprehend . . ." and the first verse ends with, "Nobody watching you, you gotta take care of yourself/(pause) Real thing . . ."
A guitar break-and-run erupts at this point, up there tight and high and LOUD, a high-hat drum ride insistent and perfect underneath the guitar but out in front of the also-perfect backalley keyboards. It reaches "chicken skin" level in seconds, and BURNS for 1:40. I clocked it.
At that moment, I began to feel Katrina's dead. And when Van tore into verse two, the Earth moved a bit on its axis for this Katrina gypsy:
"When I came down your avenue
Blew you every
Blew you every which way
When I came down your avenue
Bloo hoo hoo you ever which way
Nobody watching you, you gotta take care of yourself."
And then, I could HEAR her blown-every-which-way dead. I heard them, but their voices were coming from far away. From over in Florida and Alabama. From over Mississippi way. From Plaquimine and St. Bernard Parish. From St. Tammany. From Orleans Parishï¿½the East and the Lower Nineï¿½and Jefferson. And from the other side of the Mississippi River.
I could not understand what Katrina's dead were saying any more than I understood the dead in Dong Ha. I believe there is a Language of the Dead that we aren't meant to comprehend from this side of the crossover.
Who knows? Maybe all they're saying is, "Nobody watching you, you gotta take care of yourself."
Real thing . . .
Editor's Note: The following story was reported prior to the federal government's announcement Saturday that it would no longer enforce its "zero access" ban of the media in the recovery process. The announcement was made in response to a lawsuit filed by CNN. The descriptions of denied access and press "blackouts" here represent the situation at the time of reporting and have not been altered.