The flyleaf of NINE LIVES – Death and Life in New Orleans has the following: “After Hurricane Katrina, Dan Baum moved to New Orleans to write for The New Yorker about the city’s response to the disaster. He quickly realized that Katrina was not the most interesting thing about New Orleans, not by a long shot. The most interesting question, which struck him as he watched residents struggling to return, was this: Why are New Orleanians – along with people from all over the world who continue to flock there – so devoted to a place that was, even before the storm, the most corrupt, impoverished, and violent corner of America?”
It is a fascinating book built on the premise that the lives he writes about are only possible in New Orleans and that the city itself is always poised for disaster.
One of the lives Baum records is that of Frank Minyard. Born in 1930, Dr. Minyard had one of the most successful ob/gyn practices in the city. Then, in 1973, he decided to run for coroner of Orleans Parish. He was elected and he still holds that post. Baum writes of Minyard’s experiences after Katrina.
” How much of the city was underwater? Now he began thinking like the coroner: How many bodies were floating around, and how many more would die?….Who would put a name to the corpses and keep them from a mass grave or a potter’s field?….Frank took a deep breath, pushed forward, and began swimming toward his office.”
A week after Katrina and the breach of the levees, Dr. Minyard and his staff have yet to see any of the bodies of those who died. Then….
“The door to the library flew open and a young man stepped through….”I’ll collect the bodies!” “Who are you?” Frank said. “Kenyon….A subsidiary of Service Corporation International!” Instantly, Frank understood. SCI was the biggest funeral-home operator in the United States. It was almost impossible to die in the United States without SCI getting a piece of the action. The sound of truck engines filtered into the room…”let me see if I’ve got this straight….Dead people rot on the streets of New Orleans for a week and a half so the feds can sign a private contract.”
“…buried deep in each report was a line for cause of death, and on each someone had written ‘drowning.’….This isn’t right….These people didn’t all drown….A lot of these people died from heat exhaustion, dehydration, stress, and from being without their medication – from neglect, basically. They were abandoned out there. So it’s political, what killed them….These people were left to die like rats.”
“A neat grid of identical white coffins, 170 of them, shone in the gloom – bodies either identified but unclaimed or [unidentified]…. Abandoned in attics, forgotten on rooftops, discarded New Orleanians….The city had no plans for the unclaimed. None of the surrounding parishes wanted them.”
“It’s the storm,” Frank said, raising an autopsy form. “They may not have drowned, or died of dehydration or heat exhaustion in an attic. But these are storm-realted deaths: grief, stress, misery, uncertainty….These are about the most unnatural cases I’ve ever encountered. A person can take only so much stress before the heart muscles go into spasm and the person dies.” FEMA, he knew, was giving five thousand dollars to any family that lost someone to Katrina. Many life-insurance companies paid double if the policyholder was killed by a hurricane….”I’m putting all of these down as storm related. These are my people. It’s the least I can do….I’m seventy-seven years old. I imagine I’ll spend the rest of my life in court.” It had been the motto of his office all along: where death delights to serve the living.
Charity Hospital Cemetery
Frank wanted to do more than simply bury the dead. He wanted their resting place also to serve as a memorial to all those who’d died in Katrina. A local architecture firm designed for Frank a beautiful park, with sidewalks that spiraled in the shape of a hurricane toward a gorgeous statue of two female angels, one black and one white, holding up a fleur-de-lis and standing among breaking waves. The bodies [95 never identified or claimed] would rest in mausoleums around the spiral’s edge….”
New Orleans, “…the most corrupt, impoverished, and violent corner of America” was the victim of the worst natural disaster in US history. The desperate circumstances in which people found themselves after the storm and after the levees failed drove everything but the need to survive out of the consciousness of those trapped in a city where dead bodies floated in the streets. The heat, the lack of electricity, the need for food and water pushed the needs of the dead well behind the needs of the living. Frank Minyard ran for the office of coroner on something of a whim. He had been assisting at a methadone clinic when he realized that many of the women returned to the use of hard drugs after returning to jail, even for the shortest period. In an odd arrangement, the coroner of Orleans Parish was also the medical officer for the jail. Minyard asked the coroner if he would treat women in the jail with methadone so they would not start using drugs again. The coroner refused so Minyard ran for office so methadone would be available to those confined to the jail.
The Katrina Memorial has not been built yet but the design under consideration is the one Dr. Minyard envisioned when he looked at Charity Hospital’s Cemetery. When it is built, it will be built there. Charity Hospital was founded as a place where the indigent could receive medical care in 1736. During Katrina, Charity Hospital was flooded; patients were evacuated when the building lost electricity. It has not reopened and there are no plans for it to do so. It would be fitting for the unclaimed bodies of those who died in the hurricane to be buried and honored in a place that for so long took care of those who had no one to help them.
NINE LIVES (Death and Life in New Orleans) are the stories of nine people with deep roots in the city, who struggled through Katrina and the aftermath, and will never consider any place but New Orleans home.