Monday, March 20, 2006

Grim find shows normalcy still eludes New Orleans

Grim find shows normalcy still eludes New Orleans
By Jeffrey Jones

NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) - A backhoe gingerly lifted away twisted lumber, shingles and soiled household items in New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward to reveal a decayed body.

Before the remains could be moved onto a stretcher, bagged and loaded into a van, workers found a second corpse in the same small area of the tangle that was once a house and repeated the process as passing cars slowed.

The scene on the 2400 block of Tupelo Street on quiet Sunday morning could have just as easily never played out.

But it did, and two more of the estimated 400 people missing in New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina's floods more than half a year ago would be stricken from the list.

A successful Mardi Gras, the return of pro basketball and crescendoing sounds of construction and jazz music lull people into a sense that normalcy is returning after America's worst natural disaster and the botched early response.

The scene on Tupelo Street shows it hasn't.

It began early in this section of the Lower Ninth with two students working to clear the mounds of debris that still litter the ruined neighborhood, officials at the scene said.

Walking by wreckage of a house that had just been bulldozed off the street where it sat since the water subsided, the students noticed a limb in the tangled mess and called police.

Officers arrived, then officials with the coroner and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, and then a search and rescue team with a red truck and a sniffer dog. It is a well-established procedure.

Tim Campbell, a chaplain with Victim Relief Ministries, arrived to read a prayer for the dead.

Coroner's investigator Orrin Duncan said more bodies are being found each week as the pace of home demolition picks up in the Lower Ninth Ward, a mainly African-American community that was hammered by a torrent when the levee that held back the city's Industrial Canal breached after the August 29 storm.

He is still not used to it.

"It affects me. It's my home," the 35-year-old said. "It definitely affects me, thinking that they didn't search."

The bodies on Tupelo are too decomposed to immediately determine their gender, he said. They are darkened, stiff, vaguely human in form, anonymous.

Hurricane Katrina killed an estimated 1,300 people along the Gulf Coast, and 80 percent of New Orleans flooded when the levees gave way. Spray-painted markings on the wrecked homes in this neighborhood suggest searchers went through them months and months ago.

Henry Irvin, 69, who lived in the neighborhood for five decades, said he was angry rescue crews did not find the bodies earlier when they moved the debris off the street.

"They did a lot of pushing homes around here. I'm just glad they're going through it the right way now," he said.

(Additional reporting by Matt Daily)