Hurricane Gumbo | The Nation


Hurricane Gumbo

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Donations (make checks payable to Evangeline Parish Katrina Relief Fund)
and messages of solidarity (as well as requests for the recipe for
hurricane gumbo) may be sent to: Ville Platte Shelter, c/o Jennifer
Vidrine, PO Box 795, Ville Platte, LA 70586;

City of the Dead

About the Author

Anthony Fontenot
Anthony Fontenot, a New Orleans native, is pursuing a PhD in architecture at Princeton. He has written on contemporary...
Mike Davis
Mike Davis, a Nation contributing editor, teaches in the creative writing program at the University of California,...

Also by the Author

New Orleans did not die an accidental death--it was murdered by
deliberate design and planned neglect. Here are twenty-five urgent
questions from the people who live in a city submerged in anger and

Also by the Author

I thought I might find a simple meme of the Wall Street protest. What I discovered was a desert flower brought to blossom by an activist tradition, coalition-building and old-fashioned grit.

I'm not capable of accurately describing the kindness, intensity and melancholy that were alloyed in Carl's character, or the profound role he played in deepening our commitment to the anti-war movement.

While Edna was saving the living, his brother-in-law, a police detective from another city, was engaged in the grueling, macabre work of retrieving bodies. "Vincent" (his real name can't be used) went out each night in a Fisheries boat with a scuba diver and an M-16-toting National Guard escort.

"I wore a [hazmat] space suit and piloted the boat. I was chosen because I'm trained in forensics, and since I am a Cajun the higher powers assumed I was a water baby. We worked at night because of the heat and to avoid the goddamn news helicopters that hover like vultures during the daytime. We didn't want some poor son of a bitch seeing his grandma covered with ants or crabs on the 6 o'clock news."

Ants and crabs? "Hey, this is Louisiana. The minute New Orleans flooded it became swamp again. The ecosystem returns. Ants float and they build big colonies on floating bodies the same as they would upon a cypress log. And the crabs eat carrion. We'd pulled the crabs off, but the goddamn ants were a real problem."

Vincent described the exhausting, gruesome work of hauling bloated bodies aboard the boat and then zipping them into body bags. (FEMA neglected water, food rations and medicine, but did fly thousands of body bags into Louis Armstrong Airport.) Although Vincent was supposed to tag the bags, few victims had any identification. Some didn't have faces.

One of us asks about the demographics of death. "We pulled seventy-seven bodies out of the water. Half were little kids. It was tough--no one died with their eyes closed, and all had fought like hell, some slowly drowning in their attics.

"I deal with crime scenes and human remains all the time and usually keep a professional distance. You have to, if you want to continue to do your job. But sometimes a case really gets to you. We found the corpse of a woman clutching a young baby. Mother or sister, I don't know. I couldn't pry the infant out of the woman's grasp without breaking her fingers. After finally separating them, the baby left a perfect outline imprinted across the lady's chest. That will really haunt me. And so will the goddamn cries of the people we left behind.

"We were under strict orders to remove only bodies. But there were still lots of people on the roofs or leaning out the windows of their houses. They were crazy with fear and thirst. They screamed, begged and cursed us. But we had a boatload of bodies, some probably infectious. So we saved the dead and left the living." Vincent believes that the "sniper activity" so luridly reported in the media was from stranded people who were outraged when boats and helicopters ignored them.

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