NORTH CLAIBORNE AT CAFFIN
Steven Glynn’s recovery epicenter
AP Photo/Alex Brandon PHOTOGRAPH
Christmas came early this year for Steven Glynn who, as chief of special operations for the New Orleans Fire Department, led a citywide search for the dead and missing after Hurricane Katrina.
Glynn’s “gift” came in the form of a visit from President Obama – a reclamation of hope, youth and future at a 9th Ward intersection, which served as an informational epicenter of death, loss and anxious grief after Katrina.
Beginning Oct. 10, 2005 – six weeks after Katrina claimed 700 lives in Orleans Parish alone – Glynn directed the city’s funeral search for the missing from a network of trailers in the parking lot of the C.J. “Pete” Sanchez Center located at Caffin and North Claiborne avenues.
“We recovered 117 bodies,” Glynn says of the14 blue-uniformed firefighters who comprised his search-and-recovery team.
Four years later, the president of the U.S. addressed students at Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Charter School for Science & Technology – located across the street from Glynn’s former command post Glynn, now 52, retired from his position as special operations chief of the NOFD in 2007. He wasn’t among the spectators to greet the president.
Glynn was at his new job: directing fire safety operations for the four federal strategic petroleum reserves on Louisiana’s coast.
As with many Christmas presents, of course, it’s the thought that counts.
Today he’s replacing memories of cadaver dogs sniffing through cold, flood-wrecked homes with the image of excited New Orleans children greeting the president on a sunny October day at their newly renovated school – that’s a gift.
Glynn says the thought of the president visiting the school makes him feel “pretty good.” “It’s good to be able to put it behind you,” he says quietly.
Before Katrina, the corner of Caffin and North Claiborne avenues served as a starting point for the annual Martin Luther King Day parade.
By the time Glynn and his team set up camp, the intersection had become the north side entrance to a graveyard of 220 square blocks of destroyed homes, churches, schools and neighborhood bars.
The solemn mission, plagued by bureaucratic squabbles, ended when funding ran out in December 2005, then resumed when money was found the following March. The search finally halted in May 2006.
Each morning – for weeks – Glynn and his team huddled over long lists of Katrina’s dead, missing and last known addresses of houses, some of which had been swept away.
During cold spells, the men would cross Caffin Avenue to the school and warm their hands over a log burning inside a steel container outside.
With fire axes and shovels, the team would then fan out across a vast grid of destroyed homes and overturned cars, seeking the unburied.
Cadaver dogs joined the search, ominously sniffing through the rubble for the storm’s departed.
“A good day is when we can ‘clear’ homes and actually let families (know) … for sure that this person was here – or not here,” Glynn told Online NewsHour in March 2006. “I mean … that’s about the best that this mission gets.”
The searchers stopped whenever a body was discovered. Someone would call a volunteer chaplain.
Standing over the remains of the Katrina’s victim, the clergy member would read the same “recovery prayer” recited over 9/11 victims pulled from the rubble of the World Trade Center in New York City:
We give thanks for this person’s life.
We give thanks that this person was found.
We give thanks for the persons that found them.
We ask that they may be made whole in God’s arms and that they know peace.
Glynn’s team and other recovery workers gathered in a circle, heads bowed. Anyone who wanted to add a few words could do so.
The remains were then placed in an ambulance and taken to a morgue. “And we went back to work,” Glynn says.
On Dec. 1, 2005, Mayor Ray Nagin reopened the Lower 9th Ward, the last of the city’s 73 neighborhoods cleared for residential, albeit limited, return after Katrina for, “look and leave” visits.
The mission of Glynn’s team changed from finding the dead to assisting the living who salvaged what they could from badly damaged homes.
As the search dragged on, Glynn and his team met dignitaries, monarchs and celebrities who came from around the world to see nature’s wrath.
On one chilly morning, filmmaker Spike Lee – wearing a gray jogging suit – walked up as the search team gathered around a fire in a barrel outside the school.
On another occasion, then-President George W. Bush and First Lady Laura Bush unexpectedly drove by the 9th Ward command post – interrupting a cadaver dog handler’s telephone argument with FEMA over which government agency would pay for the K-9’s hotel bill.
The recovery workers snapped to attention.
The Bushes waved as the presidential motorcade sped toward the repaired breech at the Industrial Canal. The dog handler then resumed his squabble with FEMA.
Glynn chuckles at the memory.
Today, four years later, many locals want President Barack Obama to see evidence of the city’s reconstruction, the unfinished work and unfunded needs.
Glynn has a different wish.
“I’d most like him to see what happened,” he says. “There is some evidence of [the destruction] still there. But you have to look at pictures to see what happened. The emphasis from the federal government should be that this shouldn’t happen again. The president should see the consequences of inadequate levee protection, of us losing the wetlands and how dire the consequences are of us not doing the preparations for the storm.”
Air Force One lands in New Orleans shortly before noon. Critics panned Obama’s first presidential visit to the city even before it begins. The four-hour stay is too short, too limited in scope, etc.
Recovery issues at a University of New Orleans town hall quickly overshadow Obama’s earlier address at Martin Luther King – except perhaps for the 500-plus kindergarten through 10th grade students at the 9th Ward charter school.
“I want all of you to know that the most important thing you can do for yourselves and for your community and for your country is to work hard in school and to treat each other with respect – and treat yourself with respect,” the president told students, adding:
“I want a promise from every single one of you that you guys are going to work hard in school each and every day. Give me that promise. You promise?” “Yes!” the students cheered. Obama pledges to return, “to make sure you’ve all been working hard.”
Should the president bring the First Family on his next visit, Glynn says he’d like the Obamas to see the city’s attractions such as Audubon Zoo, the French Quarter and Mardi Gras. Not Carnival on bawdy Bourbon Street, he adds, but the thousands of families who line St. Charles Avenue for the parades. “That’s what I’d like him to see,” Glynn says.
Before Carnival comes the Martin Luther King Day holiday, of course. This year, someone should honor former-Chief Glynn and his old search-and-recovery team with an invitation to join the annual King Day march through the Lower 9th Ward, which begins at Caffin and North Claiborne avenues.
Now that, would be something to see.