Ten years ago, I covered the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans for the New York Post. I spent more than a week in the city, interviewing survivors, witnessing damage, seeing dead bodies, sometimes paddling in abandoned boats to get to flooded areas. Stories for the Post, obviously, are written in a particular style. When I returned home, shaken by what I had seen, I wrote about my experience in my own style. These words are 10 years old now. But they are still vividly present. This is what it was like to be there.
A human body, left dead in the sun, makes more of itself. Heat expands air in the organs, distending the stomach and enlarging the limbs. Swollen skin tightens, dulling to a waxy sheen. Fingernails become bullet-shaped pieces of amber. The face puffs, staring. It is larger—the entire body is larger—but the growth is denaturing, a sign of loss, not gain.
I learned all of this in the city of New Orleans, during the days I spent there covering the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina as a newspaper reporter. I saw my first dead body a few hours after arriving, then saw them continuously, several per day. When I could—when they weren’t floating or wedged in a high window or trapped in a flooded school kitchen—I knelt beside those bodies, examining their faces, searching for remnants of the life that had lit them. Their expressions, mostly, were neutral, as if death had come as a passerby, unremarkable. Their limbs, though, were not relaxed, but stiff, even braced. Next to some were hand-lettered signs: “THIS PERSON DIED HERE.” One was draped in a blanket. Another wore a gold watch and chains. All were alone, and several remained, unclaimed, two days, three days, a week after I found them. They became for me quintessential signs of a city extinguished. Forgotten, as if the person they once embodied had never existed—never been born, never died.