Death and Life in New Orleans

As journalist Dan Baum covered Hurricane Katrina for The New Yorker, he wondered what sustained New Orleans residents' devotion to a city that -- with or without a storm -- has been so down on its luck. His new book, Nine Lives: Death and Life in New Orleans, answers that question with the stories of nine people's lives in New Orleans over a 40-year span, bookended by Hurricane Betsy in 1965 and Katrina in 2005.

Here, in an excerpt from Baum's book, three different people recall life the city in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

-- The Editors

Frank Minyard
September 2005

The trucks arrived, the bodies moved through, the morgue rocked. Possible homicides were routed to a cubicle where Frank's pathologists and James Brown looked for evidence. There were only about fifteen so far, out of several hundred bodies.

Frank sat at a desk in the schoolhouse, thumbing through reports. In keeping with DMORT's mission, they were devoted solely to ascertaining people's identities so that remains could be returned to families. Yet buried deep in each report was a line for cause of death, and on each someone had written "drowning."

He stood up and found Corinne Stern. She was taking a break out by the Forest Service kitchen, her Tyvek suit rolled down around her knees, her clothes soaking with sweat. She was wolfing a huge cup of iced tea.

"This isn't right," he said. "These people didn't all drown."

"We're not doing cause of death. You know that."

"But somebody's writing down that these people drowned."

"We have to put something."

"They didn't drown."

"We can't do autopsies on every set of remains, Frank. We might get twenty-five thousand in here. DMORT identifies. That's it."

"Corinne, listen to me. 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."

"I'm sure you're right."

"We owe it to them to get their cause of death straight."

Corinne looked at him for a long time. "My job is to take care of Frank Minyard. You're the local jurisdiction."

Frank waved the sheaf of reports. "These are my people. The public ought to know why they died."

"Tell me what you want."

"I want all the bodies autopsied."

"Every one?"

"Every one. These people were left to die like rats."

Ronald Lewis
September 2005

In the garish, bug-swirling glare of a yellow porch bulb, Dorothy held up a worn schoolgirl's composition booklet. "Lots have died," she said. "I been keeping a list."

They were sitting outside the garden apartment where Dorothy was staying in Thibodaux, near Ronald and Minnie's rental. She opened the tablet and ran a crooked finger down the handwritten list. "Miz Green and her grandbaby, two years old. They died together. Miz Green was contrary; you remember that. Her son brought her out to the Superdome and she didn't like the conditions, so he brought her back home. Her house floated from Prieur almost to Claiborne. They found the little girl's body and, later on, Miz Green."

Dorothy went on. "Miss Weatherbee on Caffin Avenue. Peewee Walker. Mr. Converse's sister down the street. Samuel Jones, my brother-in-law's nephew. A friend of mine named Louis. Michelle Scott?her husband died. So did Leona Scott." On she went, each achingly familiar face rising up before Ronald and then fading like smoke. Dorothy had eighteen names.

Ronald's cell phone rang. "Mr. Lewis?" A white man with a northern voice identified himself as Steve Inskeep, a reporter for some radio station with "National" in the title. "I was hoping that you could help explain to our listeners the significance of the Lower Ninth Ward."

Ronald smacked the phone against his ear. The significance of the Lower Ninth Ward? To hear somebody speak the words, let alone a Yankee establishment man, was to hear angels break into song.

"How did you get my name?"

"Through a lady named Helen Regis." Helen Regis?that white lady professor from the Pigeontown Steppers parade.

"I'll meet you anytime," Ronald said.

Frank Minyard

A scream erupted from the dark cavern of the warehouse-morgue. Frank dropped his paperwork and ran down the school-yard path. A Blackwater guard fell in beside him, unslinging a short black rifle from his back. They rounded the corner through the big open door of the warehouse. A Tyvek-suited woman was waving her arms for help. Another woman was doubled over, shrieking. She wasn't crying, Frank realized; she was laughing. The guard helped her up and led her out the back door to compose herself.

Frank shouldered his way through the technicians to the gurney at the center of the commotion. A coffin sat there, not a mildewy coffin coughed up from a cemetery, but an immaculate white casket with shiny brass handles. "From a funeral home," James Brown whispered. "Someone didn't quite finish."

Frank peered inside, and clapped his hand over his mouth. A woman lay on a gleaming satin cushion wearing a fuchsia sweat suit, her hair in a perfect, stiff reddish bouffant. She was smiling brightly, her painted lips drawn back against white teeth. Her eyes were open.

Ronald Lewis
November 2005

Ronald picked up a Sharpie and wrote his name on a blue "Hi My Name Is" sticker: Ronald W. Lewis.

"Whom do you represent?" said the woman at the card table.

"'Scuse me?"

"Are you with a university or a city agency?"

"No, ma'am. I represent myself and the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans." He pressed the sticker to his chest and made his way slowly, on his aching feet, to the conference room. On his head he wore a red woven skullcap, which he called his battle hat. The flyer in his hand said the conference was about "reinhabiting NOLA," but the people in the hallway did not make it look like a matter of survival. They were well dressed and rested, flipping through file folders and talking on cell phones. A Tulane professor had heard Ronald on National Public Radio and called him to speak. Ronald took a seat at the back of a big classroom.

The morning's speakers dwelled on "infrastructure," "social networks," and "natural and built ecosystems." It all seemed very removed for Ronald; he still had a living room full of mud. Then his name was called. "My name is Ronald W. Lewis, and I come from cross the canal in the Lower Ninth Ward," he said. He could hear how rough and uneducated?how black?his voice sounded. He didn't have a lot of big words like "infrastructure" to throw around. But that was okay; he'd faced down Hero Evans.

"When you drive over that Claiborne Bridge, you see that green space," he began. "That was my world. When I wanted to go sit by my sister, on the porch, and watch my other sister doing her flowers in her yard, that's what I did. James, over there, might be round by his house barbecuing, and we'd hear him cooking, and we'd be round by James. If the neighbor cross the fence was boiling crawfish, we'd cross over there. In the Lower Ninth Ward, we're people people." He took a deep breath. This was no time for speeches.

"I have a museum," he said. "Help me, and I'll help you help others. I'll show you the way."

Anthony Wells

"After the project, we were paying two ninety a month for a little place. They cut me off food stamps because I was working at the appliance place, making oven racks. I had no car, so I had to pay people to take me to work. Eight dollars an hour, and it's costing me like twenty, thirty dollars a week to get to work. On the weekends, I'm looking stupid?watching TV, cigarettes, a couple of beers. My last check, I couldn't cash it, because I was working for a temp agency and the banks wouldn't cash their checks anymore.

"Then the motherfuckers picked me up for driving without a license. I had five tickets, no license, no ID, no insurance. Altogether it came to eleven hundred dollars. I told Roger, 'We're not in New Orleans no more. They don't let you do shit up here like we did.'

"The judge says, 'You got money to pay?' I say no, said I was going to sell the car and I ain't going to drive it no more. "That's fine, Mr. Wells, but we need eleven hundred dollars.' They locked me up; six months suspended and six to serve.

"It was like a dungeon, man, eight dudes to a cell and I'm the only black man in there. I had seven pencils sharpened, all taped together, just in case. 'What you doing with all those pencils, boy?' 'I'm doing a lot of writing, sir.'

"When I got out, I called my aunt Mildred; she was back in New Orleans. I told her I'm not putting up with this anymore. I'd rather be a bum. What Bush and them eat in Washington don't make people in New Orleans shit, you feel me? She was all, 'Anthony, come on down. You do the best you can and God will make a way. Trust in the Lord.'

"And I missed my aunt Mildred. I missed seeing my uncle Bud. I missed walking around. In New Orleans, you walk around. You sit down. You see people. You talk. There's noise all the time?wreck on the I-10, the pool hall, somebody playing on a saxophone. Gunshots. Yeah, man. I even missed the gunshots."

From Nine Lives by Dan Baum Copyright 2009 by Dan Baum. Excerpted by permission of Random House Group, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.