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Piling Up the Dead

May 23, 2010

“Mortui Vivis Praecipant”
— A sign posted in the Katrina morgue at St. Gabriel: Let the dead teach the living.

It was painful to watch, even as a recreation, even if the ground truth were exaggerated for effect. There were in fact “officially” only 86 John Does at St. Gabriel by February 2006, the reality was gruesome. Causes of death on some victims was listed as “decomposition.”

But I am not here to quibble with facts but to marvel at how Simon and his team build a compelling, dramatic story around LaDonna’s search for her brother and bring out the gruesome ground truth beneath the story, just as the great historical novelists of the 19th and 20th did.

At the same time, the off-camera passing of Antoine Batiste’s mentor and following funeral were understated and told only obliquely a story just as horrific: the slow deaths that piled up upon the official Louisiana toll of 1,577. Journalist Robert Lindsay spent years following the continuing toll upon those indirectly victims of the flood – the broken-hearted elderly who died during their displacement, those who died because of the lack of medical care, the epidemic of suicides: all the other causes that fall under the clinical and statistical name “excess deaths,” the significant and well-documented anomalies in the post-Katrina death rate in New Orleans and other affected communities.

Antoine’s teacher stands in for thousands who died in the months that followed, each and every one as much a victim of the flood as Chief Lambreaux’s wild man found beneath his boat.

New Orleans has always been famous for our cemeteries, the cities within the city, avenues of raised tombs walled in by mausoleums. These are among our most popular attractions, and the day we buried blogger Ashley Morris at St. Louis No. 3 what should happen but a tour bus pulled up, and visitors stood with their cameras in uncertain amazement watching people dressed in their best clothes dancing to a brass band in an oppressive Spring heat. I wonder if any of them have watched the show, said, “when we were in New Orleans…”

Most every Thursday on my way to a poetry reading at the Gold Mine Saloon on Dauphine Street, I pass one of the popular Ghost Tours standing on the corner of Orleans and Dauphine. I have not taken one, but I understand they traffic in the more gruesome tableaux from the Musée Conti Wax Museum, the ones the buggy drivers share as they circle the quarter. After 300 years, we certainly have our share of ghosts. Those born of the flood were a palpable presence driving ruined neighborhoods, and still are today once they have touched you.

Tonight’s visit to St. Gabriel and the death of Antoine’s mentor reminds us all that here in New Orleans our ghosts and our dead are not historic drapery for the benefit of the tourist trade but something every much among us. And somewhere in that crowd the spirits of John Steinbeck and Emile Zola stand in amazed approval, acknowledging a fellow master and comrade.

— wet bank guy

  1. samjasper permalink
    May 24, 2010 11:02 am

    In December 2005 I wrote this on the Katrina Refrigerator blog after having been reunited with some of our lost friends:

    “Others won’t be so lucky. You’ve all seen the death toll numbers, which I’m still not really convinced of. (Does that number include people like Louis’s nephew?) But no one’s talking about the “missing” numbers. As of last week, according to I believe it was an Associated Press story, these are the statistics so far:

    -80% of New Orleans was under water
    -284,000 homes were destroyed
    -81,000 business were destroyed

    Horrible stats, but the following statistics are rarely mentioned:
    -6644 people are still listed as MISSING, and this number includes 1000 children

    Where are they? Is someone doing anything to find them? With over 1000+ confirmed dead, what about the 6600 missing people?

    Seems to me this needs to be looked into, not just reported and dismissed. We are lucky. Most of our missing people are turning up. I cannot imagine not knowing where my daughter and grandson were for all these months. Wondering if they were under a building somewhere dead and still not found, or had been sent three states away but not put on any list. Them being so untrackable would be torture. This is the reality for many people in this region.”

    The frustration is still with me five years later. Piling up the dead was real. And many of the number of missing are in fact still missing.

  2. May 24, 2010 1:39 pm

    That missing number is seldom mentioned. Hell, they are still trying to locate MIA’s from the 70’s. I guess these 6644 people don’t matter very much.

  3. Robert Lindsay permalink
    May 25, 2010 11:46 am

    There are no 6000+ Katrina victims missing. There are only a few still missing at this point. Some were obviously just washed out to sea or even died at sea and are in Davy Jones’ locker and will never be found.

  4. May 25, 2010 11:54 am

    Robert, if you read again, you’ll notice that Sam was quoting something she wrote in December 2005. At that time, which is also the approximate time period in which the show takes place, there were indeed 6,644 missing. A quick Google search turned up several articles in the mainstream press with that number, here’s just one:

  5. May 25, 2010 11:55 am

    Robert Lindsay is correct. I used him as just one source during 2005 when the list of missing was very large, and gradually the lists kept by Louisiana and Mississippi were gradually worked down to what we must assume are those washed out to sea, and those left unidentified at St. Gabriel/Carville and interred at the Charity Cemetery on Canal St. in New Orleans at the last anniversary.

    Robert, let me thank you again (as I did several years ago when I was publishing Wet Bank Guide) for your extensive work on this subject.

  6. May 26, 2010 9:35 am

    Robert, I know a lot of information has come out since that time which alters the number. But as Ray said, I wrote that in 2005 when all the information I found had that number and I was appalled by it. Given that the series is in about that time period, this would have been the information they were working with, the niggling thought in the back of their brain as they wondered where their brother was, or their grandmother, or their best friend.

    The scene in which LaDonna looks around, sees all those trucks, realizes the magnitude of the catastrophe and doubles over was stunningly real. Some of the missing were in those trucks, some were never to be found, and some weren’t found cuz they didn’t want to be. Nevertheless, in her shoes at that time I would have been thinking, based on the reports in the MSM, that there were 6000 other families in the same boat as me.

  7. May 26, 2010 10:11 am

    So there were only 86 “John Does” at that time according to the link, but there were 183 unclaimed bodies. (Daymo was not a John Doe; he was identified, just incorrectly.) We see about 12-15 bodies in the trailer, we see about 12 trailers, which puts what was portrayed on-screen right in the ballpark of historical fact.

    Just a nit, though. The point was the horror of so many people not only dead, but dead and abandoned, and that was a punch in the gut for everybody who watched, I think. It reminded me of the scene in The Wire when Lester realizes that every boarded-up row-house door might have a body behind it, and there are so many doors.

  8. May 26, 2010 10:13 am

    And seven of those bodies are age 15 or younger. One was younger than 5 years old.


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