"Get your facts first, and then you can distort them as much as you please." (Mark Twain)

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Putrefying 

So the death toll in Louisiana from Hurricane Katrina stands at "only" 972 - far fewer than the thousands predicted - and the search for additional bodies has officially ended. That does not mean, however that the job is done:
The state has called off its search for Hurricane Katrina victims and is asking anyone who finds a body to call 911.

After three weeks of searching flooded areas of New Orleans and areas south where Katrina's storm surge destroyed houses and businesses, a total of 972 bodies had been recovered by Tuesday when the search ended.

"We still have recovery crews on standby, so if people find a body or know where there is a body, they can call us," said Kristen Meyer, public information officer for the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals.

That's one of the concerns of Dr. Louis Cataldie, the state medical officer and chief of the recovery and identification process.

"I'm extremely worried about people going back to the homes," he said. "We didn't do an intrusive search," except on houses that had deep water or odor indicating that someone had died inside.

"If someone does return home and find a loved one," he said, his voice trailing off. "It's very traumatic. It has happened."

This is inexcusable. Telling people to call 911 is not how the recovery of human remains after a disaster is conducted in a functioning society. And apparently, people are beginning to notice:
In a country that cherishes the names of the dead, reads them aloud, engraves them in stone and stitches them into quilts, it is odd that Hurricane Katrina's victims remain, more than a month later, largely anonymous.

There has been no accounting of their age, sex and race, nor of how they died or where they were found. As for how they lived, it is difficult to find even a Web site paying tribute to individual victims. With 972 deaths confirmed and the search for bodies declared complete, the state has released only 61 bodies and made the names of only 32 victims public....

Nor has the Department of Health and Hospitals been willing to make public information that it has collected, from the recovery locations to the autopsy results. Dr. Louis Cataldie, the state emergency medical director, has made it clear that he is bewildered by a reporter's request for precise numbers, saying at a briefing last week that there had been "six to seven homicides" and "there haven't been that many" children.

Asked afterward how many more bodies might be out there, he appeared exasperated. "There is one out there," he said. "That's all that matters, isn't it...?"

The lack of information has robbed the death toll, released each day in a terse statement from Dr. Cataldie's office, of a human face. "There really haven't been any stories of who they are," said Marian Fontana, who lost her husband in the World Trade Center and became a prominent advocate for Sept. 11 victims' families. "I think the way people really connected to 9/11 was people's lives, and I haven't heard any of that. It reminds me of the tsunami," where hundreds of victims ended up in mass graves. "It was a big giant number in a place far away."

For much of the nation, of course, New Orleans has essentially become just that - a place far away, psychologically if not physically. Much has been made of the lessons we ought to take from Katrina about race in America, and indeed, it is hard to argue with the evidence (via Scout Prime):
JEANNE MESERVE, CNN HOMELAND SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: (voice- over): In pulverized portions of New Orleans's Ninth Ward, where water flows, instead of traffic, most homes bear the signs that search teams have been in to look for the living and the dead, but not in one area that spans several blocks. Here, house after house after house is unmarked.

EDWARD MENDEL, SEARCH VOLUNTEER: From here back, I estimate 100 to 150 homes that are still unsearched. And I do expect we will probably find some bodies.

MESERVE (on camera): Why do you think that?

MENDEL: You can smell them as we drive by.

MESERVE (voice-over): Federal officials say search teams came through every house and ran out of paint to mark them. But volunteer Ed Mendel believes they were not able to go where he can on what he calls swamp thing, a vehicle designed for hunting pigs and deer in the Everglades and modified for rescue work.

MENDEL: It will drive in six feet of water. After that, it starts floating like a boat.

MESERVE: Mendel is particularly concerned about the unmarked homes he passes with nice cars still parked in the driveway.

MENDEL: That's a pretty bad indicator that there may be a recovery involved there.

MESERVE: And then there are the places where houses used to be.

MENDEL: I know there's bodies under the debris piles in the sides of the road. You can -- you can tell from the byproducts that comes off of humans....

MESERVE: But Roz Kay knows others lost more than property and possessions.

ROZ KAY, FORMER NINTH WARD RESIDENT: We have so many people who were superseniors that lived in these neighborhoods. And they didn't have children or anyone to rescue them all the way out.

MESERVE: If these homes have not been searched and these people found, Roz Kay perceives it as another slap at the Ninth Ward and the people who lived here.

KAY: This is a predominantly black neighborhood, OK? And it's always been neglected. And it's been a hard fight and an uphill fight always. So, I'm not surprised.

MESERVE: Not surprised, but horrified that, more than a month after Katrina rampaged and ravaged through, there may be grim discoveries still waiting to be made.

Whether racially motivated or not, the slipshod recovery efforts in New Orleans are shocking and unacceptable. And at the risk of throwing some red meat to the Bush/Chertoff/Brownie apologists out there, note that it is the state of Louisiana that has called off the search for remains - unlike the initial efforts to evacuate survivors and get provisions to those who could not be immediately evacuated, which properly fell largely on FEMA, this is a local government task. The New York Times article cited above notes that, in Mississippi (which I gratuitously slagged yesterday, so it's appropriate to now give credit where due), 196 of the 221 confirmed dead have been identified.

Of course, it is difficult for local authorities to do their jobs while being laid off - as about 40% of them have been - and it may be the case, as Gov. Blanco suggests, that FEMA money that could help New Orleans make its payroll is not flowing the way it should. But that is no excuse for declaring "mission accomplished" when it clearly is not, and no one should fall for any claims to the contrary. The dead still lying under the rubble of the Ninth Ward deserve the dignity in death they were so often denied in life - the question is, will anyone take on the task of speaking for them now?

 

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