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 amber. The face puffs. It is larger—the entire body is larger—but the growth is denaturing.
I learned all of this in the city of New Orleans, during the days I spent 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 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.