Katrina & Beyond

More Bodies Found in New Orleans

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National Guardsmen in New Orleans find few living residents as they continue searching the city for survivors. Instead, one unit was busy handling dead bodies discovered in the flooding's aftermath. Robert Siegel talks to Michele Norris.


This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

All over New Orleans today, search and rescue vehicles rolled through city streets on two types of patrols. They were looking for survivors of last week's hurricane and flooding, but they were also looking for bodies of people who didn't survive. It was a methodical operation. Each convoy was assigned a specific grid of the city, and then it's up one block and down until another area is covered. Our colleague Michele Norris joined one of those convoys today, and she has this report.


We headed out this morning with the 36th Infantry Division of the Texas National Guard out of Austin. They've been at this for more than a week now, 10- and 20-vehicle caravans of trucks, tanks and Humvees searching for survivors as the floodwaters recede. They've rescued thousands in the past 10 days, and today they're in the Lower 9th Ward.

Unidentified Man #1: Ho! Ho! Ho!

Unidentified Man #2: Whoa!

NORRIS: This was supposed to be a door-to-door mission, but that's impossible because water still reaches just before first-floor windows. So the huge flatbed trucks creep through fetid water, through an obstacle course of debris and fallen roofs.

(Soundbite of horns)

NORRIS: Honking their horns to alert those who might still be inside, ever on the lookout for signs of life. In that sense they're almost like detectives, trying to spy clothes left out to dry, an SOS in the attic or a well-fed pet. Along Claybourne Street, a broad boulevard that now looks like a giant lake, someone spots a body, a heavily tattooed man in a green shirt and shorts.

Unidentified Man #3: Whoa. Body.

Unidentified Man #4: Hey, Norey(ph), document that body.

Unidentified Man #5: OK, see, I can't help you. I...

Unidentified Man #4: Get the cross streets and document.

Unidentified Man #6: 5200 block, North Claybourne, ...(unintelligible) floater.

NORRIS: Lieutenant Gregory Brown leads today's convoy. He says discoveries like this have become a grim routine.

Lieutenant GREGORY BROWN (36th Infantry Division): I gave my troops the instructions to treat the bodies, the remains like a land mine. You know, you avoid it, you mark it and you report it back up to higher, and they're keeping track of all those things. And then when FEMA comes in or whoever they tasked to come in to clean up those bodies, then they'll know where they are.

NORRIS: President Bush the other day pledged that he said he wanted to make sure that the bodies are treated with reverence and respect. And since we're out here in the field, I'm wondering what that means.

Lt. BROWN: These are our fellow Americans, and they're getting reverence and respect from their neighbors. We've seen bodies lined up on some of the streets and their neighbors have put sheets over them and put them out where the people who need to come get them can come get them quickly so, you know, the remains can be handled properly, you know. No remains are going to be mistreated because this is not like a hostile situation where you're just going to stack the bodies up and get rid of them. You know, these are people who need to be identified by their families and be taken care of.

NORRIS: In the three hours we spent with this convoy, they found the one body, but no survivors. Stephen Spalitta is the enforcement director of the Louisiana Office of Alcohol and Tobacco Control. Today he's part of the rescue effort, but he suspects the mission will soon change.

Mr. STEPHEN SPALITTA (Louisiana Office of Alcohol and Tobacco Control): We're assuming that the search and rescues are going to be terminated soon and it's going to go into a recovery.

NORRIS: If you had to guess, though, a body out here floating face-down out here in the sun, how long do you think it'll take before someone comes out to pick the body up?

Mr. SPALITTA: I'm not sure. Under the circumstances, probably about--this particular one, probably a few days at this point. You don't want to--and as insensitive as it may sound, you don't want to wait, put manpower on deceased, when all the manpower should be put toward those who are still living.

NORRIS: So today there was silence on our truck as they left the body behind. No one was comfortable leaving that image in their rearview mirror. After all, someone somewhere is probably looking for this man, this floater, who had a life and a life story that's probably spelled out in some of those tattoos. In New Orleans, I'm Michele Norris.

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