“The Peace They Deserve …”
Perspectives from the Coroner’s Office
CHERYL GERBER PHOTOGRAPH
If you missed the “levee-to-levee” media coverage of the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, some public remarks bear repeating. Years after the “reclamation” of the storm-damaged Superdome, Katrina’s dead finally got the eulogy they have long deserved.
The “reclamation” of dozens of unclaimed and unknown storm victims took place Aug. 29 at their final resting place: Katrina Memorial Cemetery (5056 Canal St).
More than 1,100 people in the New Orleans area died in Katrina’s wake.
Dr. Jeffrey C. Rouse, a psychiatrist elected coroner last year, addressed the crowd.
Rouse directed the crowd’s attention to the six shining new vaults of the mausoleum, where the unclaimed and unnamed rest in individual coffins.
With 150 words, Rouse elevated Katrina’s dead from individual obscurity to collective prominence:
“I’m the Coroner. My duty is to speak for the dead.
“Right there are dozens of New Orleanians, dead from the storm. Their last moments on earth were filled with terror and disbelief that they were about to actually drown in their own attics, inside their hometown, our hometown. No family came forward to bury them. Some of them will forever be unknown. They sit in silent watch. They sit in silent judgment.
“They judge us – and our city’s progress – not by how far we’ve already come. They judge us by how far we have to go. They are the conscience of this city.
“So we return here, year after year, to their resting place, to answer to them. And they ask us what we’ve done together as one city, as one community to continue the work. Let us make them proud. That is how they rest in the peace they deserve.”
The Katrina Cemetery was built on the site of the historical Charity Hospital Cemetery.
Since the 1830s, the Charity ground has been used to bury thousands of unclaimed and poverty-stricken residents, according to the WPA Guide to New Orleans (Historic New Orleans Collection, 1983).
Rouse’s predecessor and former boss, Dr. Frank Minyard, headed a collaborative effort – with major backing from the local black funeral home owners and morticians – to build the $1 million-plus cemetery for Katrina’s dead. It was completed in 2007.
Under Louisiana law, the coroner is responsible for the internment of all unclaimed and unidentified remains.
In 2006, almost one year after Katrina, Rouse appeared before a field hearing of the United States Senate Subcommittee on Bioterrorism and Health Preparedness.
He was then a 31-year-old psychiatrist and deputy coroner and haggard.
“I’m a whistleblowing, psychiatric foot soldier,” Rouse testified, urging congress to “maximize” psychiatric help for New Orleans.
Rouse recalled he h a Homeland Security medic set up a “respite” clinic for cops in a hotel gift shop.
The Church of Scientology was providing massages to first responders, long before federal help arrived.
The mental health crisis persisted one year later. Stressed-out cops too often encountered the agitated among the mentally ill. Three such encounters ended with police use of deadly force.
“When the police department is forced to do the job of the mental health system, it’s a lose-lose situation for everyone,” Rouse said in 2008.
Today, 10 years after Katrina, Coroner Rouse has brought new energy to the office. He “speaks” for the dead – and the city’s sexually abused and mentally ill.
“We have to provide not only the highest medical professionalism but also bestow dignity and search for the truth,” he says.
The Coroner’s office is an “option of last resort” for families seeking hospital commitments of mentally ill loved ones, who are a danger to themselves and others.
“We order someone to be picked up by the police and brought to a hospital within 72 hours,” Rouse says. One of four staff psychiatrists examines the person to determine whether hospitalization is required.
“We do approximately three to four commitments from families each day,” he continues. “My psychiatrists do second opinions on another 10 to 15 mental health cases each day” in Orleans Parish.
“That’s a crisis level,” I say.
“It is,” Rouse replies, reiterating staff limits.
The Coroner provides forensic medical exams to sexual assault victims. The Coroner’s website reminds adult victims (age 18 and over) “they are not obligated to make a police report.” The Coroner works with specially trained Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners (SANE) at LSU Health Sciences Medical Center and Children’s Hospital to help victims. “SANE nurses are highly trained with hearts of gold,” Rouse says.
Homicides comprise the “lion’s share” of the daily work. Mayor Mitch Landrieu helped hire five full-time death investigators, up from “one and a half investigators” in 2004. A part-time victim-assistance coordinator has been hired to respond to murder scenes and ensure the victims’ families receive accurate information.
Change of address
This month, the Coroner’s office and morgue is expected to move into the newly built New Orleans Coroner’s Complex, at the corner of Earhart Boulevard at S. Claiborne Avenue.
Price: approximately $15 million. Inside, the Coroner will share 37,000 square-feet with city Emergency Medical Services.
Until then, the Coroner’s operations will continue operating from a former funeral home (2612 Martin Luther King Blvd.).
A recent visit to Katrina Memorial Cemetery revealed well-cut lawns and brightly wrapped bouquets of dying at the base of the tombs.
Reading the Coroner’s eulogy here, some passages bear repeating :
“Their last moments on earth were filled with terror … they were about to drown in their own attics, inside their hometown, our hometown. No family came forward to bury them. Some of them will forever be unknown.”
The people of New Orleans have reclaimed the deceased. They are no longer “Katrina’s Dead.” They will be forever known as “our fellow New Orleanians.”
“Let us make them proud. That is how they rest in the peace they deserve.”