“They’re still finding bodies”

It is strange to me, how quickly New Orleans seems to have slipped from the forefront of our national consciousness. I mean, it’s still in the news, of course, but at times it seems as though the country has shrugged its collective shoulders and moved on. It’s probably at least partly because the administration has little interest in reminding us of the massive clusterfuck of their Katrina response, but still it’s odd. For all practical purposes, we lost an American city. This is what we supposedly live in day-to-day fear of the terrorists doing to us. In a sane world, the howls of grief and outrage would still be echoing across the halls of power. Instead, we’ve got a collective “eh, whatever.”

Anyway, Time magazine brings us up to date, and it’s not a pretty picture.

They’re still finding bodies down here 13 weeks after Hurricane Katrina hit–30 in the past month–raising the death toll to 1,053 in Louisiana. The looters are still working too, brazenly taking their haul in daylight. But at night darkness falls, and it’s quiet. “It’s spooky out there. There’s no life,” says cardiologist Pat Breaux, who lives near Pontchartrain with only a handful of neighbors. The destruction, says Breaux, head of the Orleans Parish Medical Society, depresses people. Suicides are up citywide, he says, although no one has a handle on the exact number. Murders, on the other hand, have dropped to almost none.

Mayor Ray Nagin opened up most of the city to returning evacuees last week, but only an estimated 60,000 people are spending the night in New Orleans these days, compared with about half a million before Katrina. The city that care forgot is in the throes of an identity crisis, torn between its shady, bead-tossing past and the sanitized Disneyland future some envision. With no clear direction on whether to raze or rebuild, the 300,000 residents who fled the region are frustrated–and increasingly indecisive–about returning. If they do come back, will there be jobs good enough to stay for? If they do rebuild, will the levees be strong enough to protect them? They can’t shake the feeling that somehow they did something wrong just by living where they did. And now the money and the sympathy are drying up. People just don’t understand. You have to see it, smell it, put on a white mask and a pair of plastic gloves, and walk into a world where nothing is salvageable, not even the mildewed wedding pictures.

Oh, and those bodies they’re still finding? Anderson Cooper had a report on that last week:

You know, it’s hard to imagine anything worse than coming back to your home in New Orleans and finding it completely destroyed. But, tonight, as you’re about to hear, there is something worse, much worse. Dozens of families have returned to what is left of their homes and found, lying amidst the mold and the wreckage, a body, forgotten, abandoned. Maybe it’s their mother or their grandmother, sometimes even their missing child.

The state called off searching house to house in New Orleans well over a month ago. They said they completed the job. Clearly, they have not. In tonight’s “Keeping Them Honest,” our daily segment devoted to New Orleans and the still devastated Gulf Coast, we try to find out who is to blame.

CNN’s Rusty Dornin investigates.

RUSTY DORNIN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Susie Eaton (ph) worried her mother, Viola (ph), might have been stuck inside her house in the Ninth Ward when Hurricane Katrina hit. Eaton (ph), who lives in Florida, received a death certificate for the wrong person. Upset, she tried, but couldn’t get answers from officials in New Orleans.

She ended up calling CNN and told us about her worst fears.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: My feelings are that my mother may be still in the house and she was not able to get out in time before the — before the levee broke.

DORNIN: We volunteered to go to her mother’s house to see what we could find.

(on camera): This is what’s left of the block where Susie Eaton’s (ph) mother lived. We have no idea exactly where the house was. But we did have the address. And we found her mailbox. When we called Eaton (ph), she said she was thankful to know that much, but still wonders what happened to her mother.

(voice-over): Two blocks from where Viola Eaton’s (ph) house once stood, cadaver dogs continue to search underneath the piles of rubble.

The official search-and-rescue effort was called off October 3, but there was such a backlash, crews resumed searching demolished neighborhoods. They have cleared areas zip code by zip code.

There was no joy for Paul Murphy (ph) in this homecoming. When he walked into his house in New Orleans’ Ninth Ward last month for the first time since Katrina, it was shock and anger.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: So, I’m thinking that, OK, I was going to come and salvage a few pictures or something. And I walk in here. I found my grandma on the floor dead.

DORNIN: Since November 1, 10 bodies have been found in the ruins of the Ninth Ward. The last area, known as the Lower Ninth, will open to residents December 1. Coroner Frank Minyard worries about what people will find.

(on camera): You’re fully expecting that more bodies will come in once they open the Ninth Ward?

FRANK MINYARD, ORLEANS PARISH CORONER: Yes. And I think it’s — it’s going to come in for a good while. There’s so much rubbish around that they might find people in the rubbish. DORNIN (voice-over): They already have. And there are still many bodies left unidentified and unclaimed.

On the same topic, one writer’s poignant personal account from the Times this morning:

The mood here has turned angry in the last month, as we’ve begun to lose hope we will get the hurricane protection the future of the city depends on. On the street, the sense of betrayal boils over into empty talk of closing our oil and gas pipelines, which supply much of the nation’s needs: “They won’t build us levees that work? Then let them freeze in the dark.”

Even the reliably conservative Times-Picayune ran a heated front-page editorial on Sunday, blasting the federal response to a disaster caused by one of its own agencies. Noting the false assurances we received that our levees would protect us in a Category 3 storm – all that was left of a weakened Hurricane Katrina by the time it sideswiped the city on Aug. 29 – the paper exhorted its readers to flood Washington with demands for protection against Category 5 storms: “Flood them with mail the way we were flooded by Katrina.”

Why are we all so angry? An afternoon working beside me would make that clear. Like many of my fellow New Orleanians, I’ve spent much of every day for the last two months gutting my flooded house: dragging soggy furniture and reeking appliances to the curb, ripping out moldy walls, throwing my children’s mementoes on a huge trash heap of ruined clothing and family photos and books and artwork.

On my way every day to where we used to live, I drive through a city I love that lies in ruins. The park that lines one side of a boulevard I follow home is now a solid wall of debris 20 feet high. On the other side of the street, desolate houses destroyed by the flood gape back with shattered windows, open doors and ragged holes in rooftops kicked out by families trapped in their attics when the water rose. Every single thing – wrecked houses, abandoned cars, even the people – everything is covered in a pall of gray dust, as if all the color of this once vibrant city has been leached out.

And why have we had to face this ordeal? Because, as has been amply documented, the Army Corps of Engineers designed and oversaw construction of levees so defective they are now the subject of criminal investigations by the Louisiana attorney general, the United States attorney here and the F.B.I.

We New Orleanians would have been back home two or three days after Hurricane Katrina if a manmade catastrophe had not engulfed the city in a flood. Instead, nearly three months later, only 15 percent or so of residents have returned. Most people can’t come home. As The Times recently reported, half the houses in New Orleans are still not reconnected to the city sewer system and as many still lack natural gas for heating and cooking, 40 percent have no electricity and a quarter of the city is without drinkable water.

New Orleans is on the verge of death, but still, just as in the days after our levees crumbled, the government dithers, refusing to offer an unequivocal commitment to provide protection against Category 5 hurricanes.