Bodies Are Strewn 'Like Roadkill'

With efforts focused on helping survivors, corpses lie scattered around the city. Trucks will serve as roaming morgues.

By Scott Gold and Alan Zarembo
Times Staff Writers

September 4, 2005

NEW ORLEANS — No one knew much about him. He was a black man with close-cropped hair who looked to be in his 40s. He had a high school class ring. He had been at the convention center for four days, no different from thousands of others.

Friday night, he lost it. While others tried to sleep on the sweltering sidewalk around him, he began to mumble to himself, kicking aside piles of trash. He yelled something about his missing wife. Just before midnight, a police car screamed down Convention Center Drive, and from there, the stories diverge.

Some said he just ended it — ran out in front of the car. Some said he was trying to flag it down for help when it clipped him. Some said he had a gun and was either shot or run over.

In some fashion, he died in the street, his blood draining toward the curb and congealing under a pile of crushed orange juice cartons and dirty diapers. He was still there Saturday afternoon, and chances are he is still there today.

"Right where he fell. Like roadkill," said Larry Martin, 35, another evacuee.

Until now, the nation has focused on the survivors. But at some point in coming days, as New Orleans continues to depopulate, the city will reach a tipping point. There may be more dead people here than living as the human exodus continues. And no one knows what will be done with the bodies.

Paramedics walked Saturday in front of the convention center pushing a gurney, but did not pause at the man's body. They were trying to rescue an elderly woman who was bleeding from her right leg and had not gotten out of her chair in three days.

Twin-blade helicopters thundered overhead, and they were trying to get her to a hospital in Lafayette.

"I know it's a tragic situation," said Miles Watts, a city paramedic. "But we need to save people who are alive first. We're going to have to deal with the dead ones later."

Officials are devising a plan to cope with the dead, but it is still in its infancy.

Mayor C. Ray Nagin, who predicted that the death toll could reach into the thousands, said Saturday that officials were assembling refrigerated 18-wheelers that would serve as roaming morgues.

Nagin said it might be impossible to find enough room to bury the bodies; they might all be cremated.

Unburied corpses present little, if any, risk of infectious diseases, experts agree. For one thing, people in the Katrina disaster did not die from infectious disease and thus do not likely harbor infectious agents to spread. Moreover, infectious agents in corpses do not survive long, said epidemiologist Oliver Morgan of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

"After these big events, where there are large numbers of fatalities, there is a rush to dispose of the dead and a lot of scare stories about imminent epidemics," Morgan said. "But the risk of disease transmission is really coming from the surviving population."

No one is sure when recovery of those killed by Katrina — whether in the floodwaters the hurricane left behind or the violence that erupted in its wake — will begin. It is unclear how those without wallets or papers on their bodies might be identified. And, of course, it is unclear how many there will be.

"I don't think we're quite ready for all of that," Nagin said.

Until they are, the bodies continue to surface: on the steps of the Superdome; in the besieged 9th Ward; at an elementary school where a man's body washed up on the steps inside a basement classroom; under a freeway ramp next to a submerged SUV.

Teams searching for survivors in attics and on rooftops have been given instructions to tie bodies that they encounter to street poles so they can be collected later.

The dilemma is not restricted to the civilian population. Watts said a distraught New Orleans police officer shot and killed himself at a staging area in Algiers, across the Mississippi River from New Orleans, on Friday night.

"We didn't even have a body bag to put him in," Watts said.

In the city's business district, where Albert Jordana, 45, has been paddling around in a blue kayak, he found the bloated body of a man lying facedown in the water at Canal and Roman streets.

"They're floating around," he said. The man's gray T-shirt appeared to have snagged something as the water rippled by. "Whatever they get caught up on, that's where they stay," Jordana said.

Inside the convention center, through the main hall and a set of double doors that once led to a bustling kitchen, a dark hallway was full of catering carts and crates of coffee cups Saturday afternoon. A bulletin board still held announcements for employees: a new program offering $1 parking; an invitation to an employee picnic.

Below were two more bodies, those of a man and a woman who died at the convention center before help arrived. The others had dragged them back there. An adult diaper had peeled off the woman's body. The man's foot poked out from beneath the white sheet someone had draped over him.

An Arkansas National Guard soldier appeared to check on them.

"OK, there's no blood on the floor," he said. "Just don't touch them." Then he walked away.

The New Orleans morgue is located, or used to be, in the basement of the criminal courthouse downtown. Today, water laps at the front steps of the building.

Frank Marullo, a district court judge who works there, said 47 bodies that were there before the storm are now floating near the ceiling.

"By law, the coroner has to determine a cause of death for each body," he said. "That might be impossible."

Sixty-five miles northwest of New Orleans in the small town of St. Gabriel, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has set up a mortuary in a private warehouse.

Police guarding the entrance would not let anyone pass. But the mayor, George Grace, said he believed bodies were already arriving in refrigerated tractor-trailers.

Two tractor-trailers sit outside the 125,000-square-foot warehouse, which usually is used by businesses such as Wal-Mart to store goods.

With a population of only 5,000, the town is too small to offer any assistance to hurricane survivors, Grace said. "I wasn't able to help the living," the mayor said, so instead he will "house the dead."

Times staff writer Lianne Hart contributed to this report.

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