The only doctor who lives in the parish is Richard Sanders, a coroner and physician. He's a good guy, and he looks like hellâsweaty, tired, haggard, and going at Mach 2. In addition to no meds, no home, and no officeâall just
âhe has more than a hundred open or floating coffins that had emerged from the ground because of rising floodwaters. We are making a plan to retrieve the coffins when we get news that a shrimp boat is coming in with sick folks on board.
No meds. No vaccine for hepatitis. In New Orleans there were dead bodies floating down the street. And now we have sick people coming our way. Our best defense is raw dedicationâ
you do the best you can.
I meet an elderly couple whose home was carried about ten miles from its original address; they are on their way to the National Wildlife Refuge, which has become the Emergency Operations Center, to get a tetanus shot. I had just left there, and have to give them the bad news: The Center is out of shots.
Their son gives me a ride. He has lost his home and his shop. He points to a slab where his office was. The hospital, too, is destroyed. He doesn't know how many people will rebuild, and he scoffs a little as we drive by a “hurricane-proof house” that has been decimated. It was featured in
, he tells meâ“But that was years ago.” Rita caused no deaths here because people evacuatedâin part because they remembered 1957 and Hurricane Audrey. I was nine years old at the time, and I remember that bitch, too. Katrina could have been her twin sister.
Most of the power lines are lying in the mud, and it will likely take months, if not years, to fix them. “We had to cut some wire just to get down the roadâI think that may make them mad,” the son tells me matter-of-factly. He strikes me as the kind of person who does what has to be done. He points yet again to a slab where relatives used to live, and stares there a little too long, giving himself away. I pretend not to notice the small crack in his veneer.
When we arrive at the courthouse, it is surrounded by military vehicles. The court clerk is there gathering recordsâhe protected many of them before the surge. A surge is the deadliest part of the hurricane. It's basically a big dome, made by winds from the eye of the storm, that comes ashore as a wall of water. The clerk offers his office as a clinic if we need it. Inside, it's wet and already moldy, but it is standing and that is testament to the wills of these people. Some of the metal buildings are sheared off at about twenty feet above the ground. The surge must have been of tsunami proportions.
When I get back to the EOC, I talk to the doc and assure him we will get supplies. I leave with a handwritten list of medications he needs. There is no electricity. Stacks of plastic bottles filled with precious water sit in the sun. Oddly, they remind me of sandbags. The water is tepid if not downright hot, but you are glad to guzzle it down because it is clean. The heat and humidity rob you of your fluids in the merciless sun down hereâeven in September.
Dr. Sanders needs those meds now, and part of the reason I came here is so that he could look me in the eye and know who I am and have me as a direct contact. I put a lot of faith in seeing a man one-on-one. That's why I respect Stewart Simonson, assistant secretary for Public Health Emergency Preparedness at the Department of Health and Human Services, who met me face-to-face and has stayed true to his word. Imagine, someone from D.C. being a straight guy. He has delivered every timeânot so with some of these other cover-your-ass feds. It's disgusting, and disappointing.
I made the decision to have chaplains go into the field with the recovery teams and say a prayer of thanksgiving for each person recovered. Incredibly, somebody from the ACLU had the audacity to take issue with my mixing church and state. My intent was to assure the dignity of the deceased.
No good deed goes unpunished, especially here.
For many politicians, the point in coming down here isn't to lend a hand or to see for themselves how bad things areâit's all about the photo op! Can you imagine? Who in the hell is interested in token souvenirs when we have dead and dying?
In our makeshift morgue here, about seventy miles west of New Orleans, one of the forensic pathologists has hung a sign that reads:RESCUE ME
Mortui vivis praecipant
. It means, “Let the dead teach the living.”
During the rescue phase immediately after the first storm, I was transporting a little old lady who was crying because she didn't know where her grandchildren were. The building she lived in was damaged and the kids were missing. I asked her why they stayed during the storm; she told me there had been so many false alarms before. . . .
I tried to calm a young EMT who had promised an elderly woman he would go back to retrieve her when he had the right equipment to extract her. Then he lost her and could not get back, and he assumed she drowned. I fear for him: he cannot rejoice in the lives he saved, because he is stuck on the one he may have lost. We in the medical business tend to focus on the losses and not celebrate the wins. . . .
It's unspeakably sad to walk into a hospital and see the evidence of trauma and step around and even over dead bodies that lie in the hallways and everywhere else. No lights. No water. No ventilation. Then you have to worry about lead poisoning (as in, getting shot), so I carry my .40-caliber Glock as I wade through the sewer and chemical hazmat of the flood. Most of the lead hazard was eliminated by the police. . . .
I opened a hospital door and two big dogs jumped out at me. Thank God they were friendlyâscared the crap out of me. I tried to catch them, but they ran off. Some dog packs have taken to hunting the only food around. The smells are horrible: death, decomposition, sewage, toxic chemicals, and black mold. I got a lungful of something bad last week during a door-to-door search in an apartment complex for the elderly. I should have been more careful with wearing a mask, but I got tired and careless; it took two days to breathe right. We had to put one guy in a hyberbolic chamber. Hepatitis A is a big worry. When I got my shots, I made the mistake of telling the nurse I was a doc; I think maybe she'd been dumped by a doctor, because she practically did a bone biopsy on me when she gave me my needle. Hurt like hell, but it's better than yellow eyes.
Hurricane Rita complicated things for everybody. Just as we were pumping dry from Katrina, Rita came and reopened the woundâgangrenous at thatâso we will go back into the sludge and try to get our dead and help our state heal and reunite our people with their loved ones.
As Rita approached, I had twenty-eight trucks tied together at the forty-acre morgue siteâthey were full of human remains. It had been suggested that they be moved, but I elected to keep them here rather than have a macabre caravan of dead bodies go north.STRESS TEST
Some do-gooder chaplain invaded my personal space one evening. I was taking a few minutes to revive myself, enjoying a sloppy joeâarmy rations, in fact, an MRE, meal ready to eat. Quite fitting, now that I think about it, because this is as bad as any battle scene. Anyway, this chaplain comes up and sits a little too close for me to enjoy my slop. What bugs me is he's so cleanâclean shirt, clean pants, clean fingernails, his hair neatly combed. He sits down right next to me. I'm on a bench, and trying to go blank for a few minutes, just to get the images out of my head for a while. He interrupts me.
“How are you holding up?” he want to know.
He gives me that TV evangelical smileâI wonder if he practices it in front of the mirrorâand I am instantly irritated by his very existence.
Cool it, Lou,
I tell myself.
This is exactly what the guy wants.
Against my every natural urge, I'm nice, because if I go off, I'm going to
go off, and this guy would misinterpret it as affirmation of his intuitive worth. You know, the kind of guy who goes back and tells his buddies how much stress I was under and how he was blessed to be there for me. He'd be wrong. While he mumbles his rhetoric, I wonder how the hell he's so dry out here in the heat and humidity. You know, I've met lots of chaplains out here, and some are here for the right reasons and some are here for themselves. This guy was not the real thing, so I brushed him off.
Get the fuck away from me.
Give me the real guy who has reddened eyelids and no smile and smells of death because that's what he's been around all day and he's got the look and his face is greasy and his sunburnt pores are clogged because he dares not wipe his face because his hands have been in gloves and he may have touched places that harbor disease from the wet sewage. He knows the deal, and he says, “Let me know if you need to talk.” He pauses and adds, “I do.” Give me that guy any day. He's the one out in the shit with meâhe knows.
This day started off at the morgue, the biggest in the world, I am told, then off to the Joint Field Office ( JFO), with all the politics there, then a visit to a proposed cemetery site, then a review of public record policy, then helping local leaders in Cameron Parish, then debriefing on same, then back to the morgue and more problems re Katrina versus Rita damage, then conversations with various state and U.S. senators regarding missing persons, then prepping for an interview with the press. It's been a long one.PRESS HERE
I repeatedly refused to speculate on the body count, nor can I understand the media's gruesome obsession with it. It is almost always the first question in every interview, and in some ways, the least relevant. I thought I would lose it with a reporter who had the temerity to ask if the body count would match that of the World Trade Center terrorist attacks.
Who thinks like that?
I don't lie to the press. I strive to be polite, but I am direct. And I am amazed sometimes that they let me in front of a camera. This is how one interview with a correspondent from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation ended:
REPORTER: There's been talk of upwards of 10,000 bodies. I understand you've set up a morgue for 5,000 in St. Gabriel, can you tell me how big you believe your operation is going to be?
LC: Number one, we're worried about the individual and not about the number, and if there are 500 individuals, we will treat them as individuals. If there are 1,000 individuals, we will treat them as individuals. I don't know how many individuals we're going to find, I don't know how many family members we're going to find. We certainly have prayed for the dead and we're preparing for the worst, and if it's 1,000, or if it's five, we're going to do the right thing, so I don't want to speculate on numbers. As far as I'm concerned, until a body comes to my morgue I will not count that individual as a victim, because I just don't know. So I'm not going to speculate or guess on numbers, but I will tell you, yeah, I'm prepared for 5,000, but I certainly hope that doesn't happen.
The press has been both a help and a hindrance. There have been many questions about crime down here. My crew and I have been inundated with false reports. I heard stories of euthanasia, women being raped, people murdered. Police were supposedly in shoot-outs inside shelters after the storm.
When the smoke cleared and the water receded, four deaths by gunshot wounds were initially confirmed in New Orleans after Katrina. To put that in perspective, four's a typical week in the Big Easy. So while the press deserves credit for arriving at the disaster scene before the federal government did, I nonetheless fault the national media for not following up more aggressively on any of these rumors. Too often they simply accepted rumor as fact. As I told one reporter, “It's not consistent with the highest standards of journalism.” In total, ten corpses were recovered from the Louisiana Superdomeâcontrary to urban legend, not one was a homicide.DMORT
The tiny town of St. Gabriel, where we are based, was named after the archangel who in the Bible bears good news to people. Gabriel first appears in the Hebrew Bible in the book of Daniel. He is the messenger of God. He has high standing in the Christian faith for having announced the coming of Jesus; some Christians believe his horn will signal the second coming of Christ. In Islam, he is credited with revealing the Koran to Muhammad. He spans many faiths. What better guardian for the Disaster Portable Morgue Unit (DPMU)?
The town is now temporary headquarters for the Louisiana branch of the Disaster Mortuary Operational Recovery Team (DMORT), a mobile disaster squad made up of medical examiners, pathologists, and funeral directors from all over. (There is another in Gulfport, Mississippi.) DMORT was set up so that experts in nearby cities, acting on behalf of the federal government, could quickly relieve overwhelmed local resources in a disaster.
When a body comes through this morgue, it is decontaminated and assigned an ID number, along with an escort who will follow the body through this laborious but necessary process. A forensic pathologist will thoroughly examine the victim for any signs of foul play. To the husbands, wives, brothers, sisters, and children of the deceased, I can assure you: No one will get away with anything on my watch.
At another station, forensic dental experts take photographs and X-rays of the victim's teeth. DNA samples are also taken. Bodies and personal effects are stored in a refrigeration truck until final ID and family notification are made.
The causes of death vary. Many are drownings. We also see chronic illnesses, predisposing illness, ventilator-dependent patients who died when electricity was lost, not to mention acute myocardial infarctions related to the stress and the trauma. Each body that comes in is a worst-case scenario for the victim, the family, and the coroner: there's nothing worse than somebody's dying like this.