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X-Signs and Obits

April 28, 2010

Simon and company’s attention to detail, adding a literal t-shirt thread here or there, to put the story together with accuracy and small, almost subconsciously assimilated cues, was very apparent in Episode 3 of HBO’s Treme. And sometimes, it’s the little things that grab ya.

Sonny and Annie, playing on Jackson Square, right in front of my favorite people watching lamp post at Chartres and Pirate’s Alley, are joined by an accordion player. Not just any accordion player, by the way. That was Sunpie Barnes, one of the best to ever squeeze air through pleats, and also a force in our community in so many ways. Sunpie was wearing a tshirt over a long sleeved shirt. The long sleeves were skull and crossbones, the tshirt was an orange “X-sign” on black. If memory serves, the date on the tshirt X-sign was 9/23, but I could be wrong.

Meanwhile, over in Gentilly, Albert searches the obits. His buddy notices and asks if he’s looking for anyone specifically. Albert answers in the negative and his buddy remarks offhandedly that the obit section is a lot bigger since the storm.

So what’s the big deal? Again, they got it right and they did it in quiet soul wrenching ways.

For those of you who weren’t here, the X-sign was and remains ubiquitous. Painted on every single structure in the city, noting which agency had been there, what date, what they found or didn’t. I still find myself reading them as I pass by, always hoping for a zero on the bottom, meaning no one found dead there. I’ve seen some with ones and twos. One in the Lower 9 had a zero with a note: “Possible body.”

There’s currently a tshirt with that sign for sale on CafePress. I’ve seen people with X-signs tattooed on their bodies. I’ve seen art inspired by X-signs. And yeah, folks, they’re still on homes all over the city. Some have painted over them, others have left them, almost like a badge. Here at my house, they got sloppy, no X, but the other info is there. Some days I want to paint it over. Some days I feel like putting a frame around it and gussying it up.

Ya know, that is almost a month after the storm hit, and they found a cat here. For anyone who thinks that Albert’s finding his Wild Man’s body THREE months later is a stretch of the imagination, I’m here to tell ya that it happened. A lot. Sweep after intense sweep and bodies were still found months and months later. Unless you actually saw the scope of the devastation, with houses on top of each other and cars on top of that, you might doubt the plausibility of that story line. I’m gonna have to watch that episode on the On Demand channel so I can pause it as Albert heads into the Wild Man’s house. I want to see if there’s a zero in the mark.

The X-sign on Sunpie’s tshirt in the very beginning was a warning to me in its own little way. Uh oh. Somebody dead. Somebody gonna get found. In a building. In a kitchen. Oh. Under a boat.

Hey, wait, you mentioned the obits! Yeah, I did but poor Wild Man Jesse hadn’t made it into them yet.

The post-Katrina death toll was extraordinary. Studies were done showing that the number of suicides and heart attacks per capita in New Orleans was beyond the pale.

Just put yourself in LaDonna’s shoes for a minute. Husband and kids in Baton Rouge, roofer being a flake, brother missing, Mama AIN’T leaving, brother-in-law judge is condescending and not returning phone calls, lawyer is working on it but still can’t find the brother, husband is dealing with the insurance people, the “good hands” people who are giving them the run around and she kisses him and says, “See ya Sunday.” And she didn’t even have a funeral to plan. Many did. This was the pattern of life for many many people after the storm, a pattern that pulled apart what was left of their emotional strength. (For those of you unfamiliar with our geography, Baton Rouge isn’t that far away, depending on whether you break the speed limit or not, you can get there in a hour and a half easily. But not after Katrina. It could sometimes take people twice that or more to get to Baton Rouge if it was rush hour and they were trying to get back to the rented place in Baton Rouge after checking on the house they were still paying a mortgage on in New Orleans.)

At the three month mark, the obits were full of the names of people just found in the debris of their homes, people who had finally been identified, claimed and released to family from the coroner’s office, and the suicides and heart attacks and stress related death people who passed last week. The Obits were a grisly read, but they were regularly searched by people like me who still didn’t know where neighbors were.

As late as six months later, March of 2006, I had been sitting on a levee on the Westbank. When I came back I wrote this:

A woman came up to us with some binoculars. . . . We started talking with her. She lives on Powder Street here on Algiers Point, a street that we delivered lots of food and water to in early September. There was an entire family that hadn’t evacuated and they had nothing. One of the women we met up there was an elderly woman, about 83 as I recall. She was one of the women who needed her medication refilled and was part of the surreal tea party under the Army tent at Blaine Kern’s as she waited with the others for a ride to West Jefferson. Her hair was black, her makeup severe, her laugh raucous and wonderful. I can’t find my notebook (been searching all morning, her name is in there), but I think her name was Joy Boudreaux, a very common surname here in New Orleans. She told me that she had been born on Powder Street and had lived on Powder Street her entire life. She was a fascinating woman. She died this week. Evidently she had other ailments, as her list of prescriptions could attest to, but her heart gave out.

The woman we were talking with was probably in her late 50’s, also lived on Powder Street. She said she had a circle of girlfriends that consisted of 12 women. They’d known each other for years. Five of them have died since the storm, of heart attacks from stress. Four others had moved out of New Orleans because of their jobs. She just shook her head, still not believing her personal human loss.

~Katrina Refrigerator Blog originally written 3/26/2006~

There are still many people missing, just flat out unaccounted for, some by choice no doubt, others just gone, bulldozed under, grown over. There are still others who were never identified or claimed.

There were about fourteen things I could have written about this week’s episode, it was so rich. But it was the X-signs and the obits that kept coming back to me as I went to sleep at night.

  1. adrastosno permalink
    April 28, 2010 4:22 pm

    We were lukcy with the X sign. A California National Guard unit did our neighborhood and we all got chalk marked xs for several blocks here in the sliver by the river.

    Great post. Too busy to write more this week alas. I thought this was the best episode thus far.

  2. April 28, 2010 5:24 pm

    As of May 2006 SELA Task Force 1 was still actively doing body search and recovery full time, especially in the Lower 9, and were finding bodies almost weekly:

    That’s nine months after the storm, and a good three months past the end of Season 1 of Treme.

  3. April 28, 2010 5:50 pm


    Those signs have an eerie resemblence to a veve, which adds to the wrenching intensity.

  4. April 28, 2010 6:36 pm

    This post made me remember the story of Janice. I know you remember it, Sam. She never made the local obituary page and had she, I doubt that anyone would have considered her a casualty of The Storm, given the point in time at which she perished.

    They didn’t search my neighborhood until the water receded and because my neighbor stayed, he asked that they put the Xs on the sidewalk and not the houses on my corner. Time washed them away.

  5. doctorj2u permalink
    April 28, 2010 7:54 pm

    Beautiful post Sam. Thank you, It says it all for the times, I also wanted to let people know about this blog I found “Songs of Treme”. Well worth a look if you love the music of the series. (Don’t we all!)

  6. April 28, 2010 10:39 pm

    I blogged about one such story that made it into the newspaper in December.

    It was really so sad how many people died alone and were not found for months and months. I had a bad feeling that they were going to find the missing man dead at his house on Treme this week, and sure enough…

    And I count four neighbors who died weeks and months after Katrina, but they were casualties of the storm nonetheless.



  7. Fleur De Lis Gal permalink
    April 29, 2010 12:00 am

    Sam – as ever, spot-on. I see the shadows of the marks that have been painted over as they eerily enough ‘ghost’ through the new coat(s) of paint. Even in December as I went through Lakeview the first time – seeing the 4-1/4 year-old waterlines on the untouched homes…I felt ill. (I’m very empathic and it can be kind of a problem in cases)

    (slightly OT, but on “Treme” – a ‘friend’ of mine shot an e-mail to me full of, um, ‘reviews’ of “Treme'” by her still-NOPD buddies…gads this show is up their nose BIG time!??!? They are full of vitriol and vinegar. Nope, not “sh*t that was an awful time…I can’t believe some of our own behaved like that!” Not “I’m so glad we are a better force and stronger now” etc… Nope – just some scary remarks and they hope the show dies. Well – not gonna happen. They even equated it to K-Ville??!??! Call the actual neighborhood horrid names. And they only blame the T-P and the politicians for how bad things got/are. I guess they forget their own that looted and such? Their own ‘leader’ Riley’s abject failure to control and guide the department to better levels of behavior, control…?
    Sorry, probably talking utterly out of my hat here – and I know (hope) there are decent folks in NOPD uniform, but the comments from the NOPD via my ‘friend’ (I’m questioning that now) were just vile and not indicative of knowing/admitting there’s a systemic problem that is not being addressed.)

  8. brueso permalink
    April 29, 2010 12:36 am

    One of the things you mentioned in your post Sam was the effect the storm and the devestation afterwards had on old folks. It put me in mind of a story Wendell told in Spike’s documentary about an old family friend of his parents (an old woman) who just stopped eating cause of how tumultuous all the events were. She may have eventually passed away from it. I wondered when we saw LaDonna’s mother refuse food if we will be seeing some of that with her storyline. I can’t remotely imagine how difficult it would be to have spent your life paying for a house and then in your 70s have it be destroyed and then get dicked around on insurance- as Wendell said in the documentary, when you’re that old, that’s definitely the time in your life when things are supposed to be easier.

  9. April 29, 2010 9:50 am

    NOPD, New Orleans’s best armed gang as we sometimes refer to it. The department is split roughly in half in terms of good and bad cops. There were one or two excellent senior cops who were let go after The Storm because that was the opportunity for some to get rid of those riding their ass to shape up. And many who gave their lives and sanity for their city in the days of the flood. But, oh my god, the bad ones are so, so bad. Loved my 6th District guys but there were some crucial occasions when they couldn’t find their collective ass with both hands.

    A compromise: I blame NOPD along with the T-P and the politicians.

  10. April 29, 2010 10:34 am

    Yeah, when I heard here call Allstate Allstate I wondered to myself just when it became Some States.

  11. April 29, 2010 10:35 am

    Heard her.

  12. Vincent Chung permalink
    April 29, 2010 12:19 pm

    I’m gonna have to watch that episode on the On Demand channel so I can pause it as Albert heads into the Wild Man’s house. I want to see if there’s a zero in the mark.

    I scanned the X while Albert walked up to Jesse’s house—the camera didn’t linger on it, but it was still hard to miss. It was definitely a “0.” Which led me to some comfort of, “Well, at least there ain’t gonna be a body in there.” And I was wrong.

  13. bayoucreole permalink
    April 29, 2010 12:39 pm

    We lost so many elderly neighbors back here in Pontchartrain Park because of what happened AFTER the storm. Most of the people back here had purchased homes in the 50’s and to receive no help from their insurance companies stressed many out to the point of death. I agree they are still casualties of the storm.

    I still have my green X on my home with DOG marked in one of the quadrants.

  14. Fleur De Lis Gal permalink
    April 29, 2010 1:49 pm

    Definitely understand that it’s a ‘melange’ of blame. Thanks for the reply. 🙂

  15. Fleur De Lis Gal permalink
    April 29, 2010 1:52 pm

    Vincent, I did, too (look for the count). And I wonder just how bad the water still was when the search happened and if they even thought to check the outbuildings if the way was clear. Or just checked the house and moved on. Sad.
    The moment I saw the boat as they walked out…I knew who was gonna be found. I know it wasn’t ‘real’ at that moment, but I’d heard the accounts of folks finding neighbors/strangers/loved ones way beyond help and knew it to ring ‘true’.

  16. April 29, 2010 1:57 pm

    And it didn’t stop with the finding of bodies. I can’t find my old Wet Bank Guide posts on this courtesy of the work firewall, but here is one place to start:

    Or perhaps just this:

  17. April 29, 2010 2:07 pm

    Vincent: Even if there was a non-zero in the X, it doesn’t mean there’s a body still in there. The markings are put there to indicate to rescue/recovery teams where to go.

    Wendy: The searches that were done when there was still water there were search and rescue operations, they were mainly looking for living people to rescue. Except for the rumored mistakes, every neighborhood was re-searched for bodies after the water was gone. You can can see this in the markings in the Lower 9 and especially in Lakeview. There are markings from the first week of the storm that are up around the eves or around the second floor windows…those were made by boats looking for survivors, when the water was still 10+ feet deep. Then the same house will have a marking from late September at ground level or near the door, when they were looking a second or third time primarily for bodies.

    The SAR teams were searching the Lower 9 for more than a year using cadaver dogs. I’ve heard stories of indifference from people who called in many times to tell authorities exactly where a body was, which is awful. On the other hand, imagine searching 80% of the city for bodies, and the bodies could be anywhere…in attics, under furniture, between mattresses, in trees, under bushes, in cars, in empty lots…anywhere a body could conceivably be (including a small child’s body, and imagine where a scared child might try to hide before drowning, and then imagine how many spots like that there are in a single house), you have to look, either with a cadaver dog or by hand by crawling through the wreckage and looking in every single spot. No organization in the world is going to be able to do that perfectly. I’ve done it in training drills in an abandoned office building, and it takes forever, is error prone, labor intensive, and is physically and mentally exhausting even when you know you’re only looking for dummy victims and not the real thing.

  18. Vincent Chung permalink
    April 29, 2010 2:41 pm

    Ray: Of course. I guess I meant the “0” to mean that everything was kosher, as in, Jesse’s taking a prolonged bus vacation to some Southeastern town, therefore distancing us from the notion that he might be rotting in the back shed. Not sure if it was intentional, but it was a nice storytelling detail.

  19. Fleur De Lis Gal permalink
    April 29, 2010 3:05 pm

    To Ray – Yeah, I was just curious, not intending to cast full-on aspersions – just wondering when/how done…and considering the daunting number of homes/remainders of such, wow. 😦
    Thanks man!

  20. doctorj2u permalink
    April 29, 2010 5:07 pm

    I know what you mean, I grew up in Gentilly Woods in the 50’s and 60’s and I KNEW that most of the people in Ponchatrain Park were probably the same people that were there when I was growing up. These people had worked hard, raised there childen right and were looking to rest and enjoy the fruits of their labor in their remaining years. And what did they get for it? Insurance companies that did not live up to their contracts and “Americans” telling them it was their fault for living where they were born. It was their fault. Who cares if you are a 70 year old widow? Stop being lazy and gut your own house! I get so angry at this country. I tried to rebute their arguments but they would not listen. They heard the truth on TV and the radio. Like me, the elderly of Ponchatrain Park had their world explode in their face. At least I had a home and a business intact. I am sure the aftermath of Katrina has taken years from my life. In their case, the stress killed them.

  21. rickngentilly permalink
    April 29, 2010 10:37 pm

    first time hearing about chalk x’s

    thank you for sharing that detail.

  22. rickngentilly permalink
    April 29, 2010 10:59 pm

    when we painted our house in march it took my wife and my painting contractor to talk me out of keeping the x on front of the house.

    i even tried to get them to let me take off the boards off the house and frame them.

    now that it’s gone i get it.

    i have pictures of the x thats enough.

    plus the house is one step closer to how we imagined it when we bought it in 2002.

    a fixer upper in a neighborhood that we like at a price we can afford.

    i love this house and i love my neighborhood.

    the block is slowly coming back to normal and i dont want to be that one old guy that keeps young familys from moving in to our block.

    theres plenty of time for the hey you kids keep off my lawn phase that i so look forward to.

  23. April 30, 2010 10:53 am

    Here’s a weird one: Katrina Veve grafitti that has started popping up in my hood.



  24. April 30, 2010 12:12 pm

    I was just sayin’ ….

    Thanks for sharing this development!

    Love, C.

  25. May 1, 2010 3:42 pm

    Dorothy Moye’s 2009 article on the “Katrina Crosses” or “X-codes”

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