Return to Stories

Hurricane Katrina

'Don't photograph the dead' he told me. 'Have some respect!'
A FEMA press officer, he looked about 20. Have some respect? Christ I could have shouted that back in his face. Have some respect! You call this having respect? It's eight days later and the stinking bloated corpses still lie in the water covered only by a blue tarpaulin with an orange X spray painted on. Some chemicals have apparently been poured on to keep down the smell but it's not working that well in the heat and humidity. What about them? Why don't they show some respect for this dead man? His foot and a hand are now clearly protruding from the tarpaulin. His body lays face down in the water as it has all week not twenty feet from the launching point for scores of boats containing hundreds of different agency representatives. FEMA, Police, EMT, Coast Guard, Fire Men, even Marines and National Guard people have taken to the water from here. Yet no one has respected this man and his family enough to lift his body from the water. Sure; I understand priority must be given to the living. Still, I watch upwards of 60 people casually standing around waiting for boats to return. Maybe they await future orders or are just taking lunch. Certainly, they are chatting, maybe having a cigarette break with their 20 or so emergency vehicles standing by. Somehow they just don't seem that busy. Within a twenty foot radius there are two bodies in the water, the man's and another completely covered by its tarpaulin is only about 10 feet from the boat launch ramp. Natural decency demands that these two bodies at least be respected. Even if thousands more wait trapped, hidden elsewhere to be discovered as the waters recede. I can't believe the orders have to be so absolute, so all or nothing. No bodies to be collected until the rescue effort is completely over. Not even the corpses where it really takes an effort of will to ignore them? Cleaning crews have started to remove the trash from the convention centre. But no one is picking up the bodies. How can this city even begin to recover while bodies lie unclaimed and vilely deteriorate in the streets and in the water?

Another body; that of a black woman, covered only by a totally ineffective bin bag is lying on the side of the raised highway not a mile further east. A group of firemen and EMT workers are gathered close by. A helicopter comes in to land not twenty feet from her body. Her body is deteriorating in the sun. She has lain dead in that hot sun for 8 days; I cannot photograph this sight. Not because they will not allow it: because I cannot look at it. I am walking away. The helicopter takes off now blasting the smell of the woman's corpse around me. I am outraged and disgusted. How can FEMA and the other agencies avoid the charges of racism and inadequacy if they allow the bodies of American citizens just to rot on full display right next to their operations?

I have seen bodies lying in the streets unclaimed and rotting before but only in countries that have let go of all civilisation, decency and humanity. Only ever in places that have descended into the anarchy and chaos of civil war as in Rwanda or Bosnia. I never thought I could see it in America. I never thought I could see the bodies of American citizens left
rotting in the streets of America. In America: in America? Why are they allowing this? That arrogant young press officer and the rest of them should: 'Have some respect!'
powered by infradox.com