Vera Smith
infamous victim of Hurricane Katrina


photo by Dave Martin, Associated Press


A CITY IN SURVIVAL MODE

A DEATH IN NEW ORLEANS

Tired of waiting for authorities to help, citizens rescue the living, bury the dead

Anna Badkhen, Chronicle Staff Writer

Sunday, September 4, 2005

New Orleans -- Neighbors buried Vera Smith on top of the concrete sidewalk at the edge of the Garden District on Saturday in a crude grave they made of soil and bricks they had unearthed from a little park nearby.

Smith had been dead for four days. She was killed by a hit-and-run driver Tuesday night as panicked residents fled the flooded city and looters descended on her neighborhood. She became one of the hundreds, possibly thousands, who died in the mayhem unleashed by Hurricane Katrina.

Over the next several days, the humid New Orleans heat had rendered her body so unrecognizable that strangers could not tell whether she was a man or a woman, black or white, said John Lee, one of the neighbors who helped bury her.

"I saw a bloodied corpse weeping body fluids onto the street," said Lee, who had not known her when she was alive.

But to the neighbors who knew her, she was Vera, the sweet lady in her 60s who had liked shopping and wigs and casinos, whose husband's name was Max and who had adored her two small dogs.

"That's Miss Vera right there," remarked a woman who rode on a bicycle past Smith's fresh grave, before pedaling past the boarded-up, plastered facades of deserted Magazine Street. "We know her."

The police, too overwhelmed by the scale of the humanitarian catastrophe in the city, refused the neighbors' pleas to collect her body. Instead, they spray-painted "29" -- the police complaint code number signifying death in Louisiana -- on the sidewalk near where she lay, along with an arrow pointing at her body.

Unwilling to tolerate the indignity of her abandonment, Smith's neighbors decided to bury her themselves Saturday, joining throngs of New Orleans residents who are simply taking charge of their own incomprehensible problems.

"Let the country see this," wept Maggie McEleney, who wore a respirator pushed up on her forehead as she freed elliptical bricks from an overgrown rock garden and arranged them to frame the grave.

Lee and Patrick McCarthy stabbed the brown earth with their dirty shovels and piled the soil on top of Smith's bloated body. A man in a white SUV pulled over, grabbed an extra shovel and joined the men.

"In this community, everybody's by themselves right now," said Jonea Jones, who paused by Vera's grave on the way to get ice, which she was planning to take from a nearby supermarket that already had been ransacked by looters. "We're looking for help. Pray for us, pray for us."

All over the city, residents launched rescue missions to save their neighbors stranded in flooded houses, and patrolled neighborhoods frequented by looters. In western New Orleans, Rory Higgins used a broom to navigate his rowboat along flooded streets in search of people stranded in their houses. He delivered them to the corner of St. Charles and Napoleon streets, where they sat on turquoise and purple bar chairs outside Copeland's Cafe, hoping that a bus would eventually pick them up and take them to shelters.

"We just got tired of sitting on our asses and waiting," Higgins said.

McCarthy, a tall, burly retired refrigerator mechanic with a booming voice who owns two 19th century houses on the border of the Garden District, has been chasing off looters showing up on touristy Magazine Street.

So far, he has been successful, he said, because "I'm big, I'm angry, and they are just kids -- and I don't even have a gun." All the other residents on his block evacuated before the hurricane, but he stayed behind to protect the neighborhood.

He is letting McEleney stay in his house, which he calls "Hotel Rwanda."

"We need people with guns here!" he roared, walking down the eerily empty street and wielding his shovel like a lance. "Where are the people with guns?"

There were police in the district. Two blocks away, two officers, one armed with an M-16 rifle, stopped three men on bicycles who were riding down the street. They demanded to know why the men were out during a 24-hour curfew. Down another block, two dozen police officers in trucks and an armored personnel carrier waited, they said, for an order to begin rescue missions.

"We understand that people are frustrated -- we're just as frustrated as they are," said police Lt. Frank Boudreaux, from Opelousas, about 120 miles northwest of New Orleans. "It takes time."

At Smith's makeshift grave, McCarthy stuck his shovel into the ground. A mound of brown dirt now rose where Vera's body had been.

"OK, let's cover her up -- let's get it over with," he said.

McCarthy, McEleney and two other neighbors, Janet Clouden and Kima Smith, picked up a square white plastic tarp and placed it on top of the grave, tucking it in under the bricks. Clouden placed two red hibiscus blossoms on either side of the grave.

On the tarp, Vera's neighbors had written a dedication of sorts in thick black letters, large enough for rescue helicopters roaring overhead to see the words.

It read:

"Here lies Vera. God help us."

E-mail Anna Badkhen at abadkhen@sfchronicle.com.


Dignity at last for Vera Smith, the iconic victim of Hurricane Katrina

By Andrew Buncombe in Washington

Published: 18 November 2005

For five full days the body of Vera Smith lay by the roadside in New Orleans - ignored by the authorities in the chaotic aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Someone covered her body with a tarpaulin and eventually her friends and neighbours built a makeshift grave and wrote: "Here Lies Vera. God Help Us." Almost three months later, she is finally to receive something more dignified.

Next week, Ms Smith's ashes are to be buried following a Thanksgiving Day family get-together that she would normally have attended. Her ashes will be scattered over the gravesite where her parents lie in Santa Rosa, Texas.

The ceremony has been organised by Ms Smith's daughter, Cynthia Lopez, who was also able to provide some of the missing details about her mother, whose fate sparked outrage across the nation and came to symbolise some of the divisions in American society.

"I feel that my country abandoned her. Our government did not do enough for our people," Ms Lopez said, speaking from her home in San Antonio, Texas. "Five days her body was there. I have had people tell me that they went up to the police and were [asking them to help]. Finally we can do this."

Ms Smith, 65, was killed by a hit-and-run driver the day after Hurricane Katrina struck at the end of August, when she had gone out to the local stores. At the time, her partner Max Keene said: "A guy came round to say she was lying by the side of the road with a piece of cardboard over her. It was me that went and put the tarp over her.

"I spoke to the police and asked them to take her away but they just told me to get the hell out of there."

Ms Smith, who was born in Linares, Mexico, in 1939, was known to her friends and family as an ebullient, energetic woman who loved books and clothes and shoes and was a regular at the local Catholic church.

"Who can forget her boisterous laughter, flamboyant dress attire, abundance of shoes, purses, jewellery and her numerous styles and colours of wigs?" said her daughter. "[She] had a great love for her children, brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews and those who are less fortunate."

Ms Lopez said Mr Keene had been struggling since the death of his partner and that he was not planning to attend the ceremony. He had received some comfort by the return of the couple's dog. Clyde was thought to have been lost in the storm but he was in fact being cared for by an animal sanctuary in Los Angeles.

Meanwhile, some New Orleans residents are trying to organise a permanent memorial to Ms Smith. Dr Lance Hill, a professor of history at the city's Tulane University, worked as a volunteer during the storm and came to learn about Ms Smith's makeshift grave. He said he had made inquiries about a memorial at the site.

For five full days the body of Vera Smith lay by the roadside in New Orleans - ignored by the authorities in the chaotic aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Someone covered her body with a tarpaulin and eventually her friends and neighbours built a makeshift grave and wrote: "Here Lies Vera. God Help Us." Almost three months later, she is finally to receive something more dignified.

Next week, Ms Smith's ashes are to be buried following a Thanksgiving Day family get-together that she would normally have attended. Her ashes will be scattered over the gravesite where her parents lie in Santa Rosa, Texas.

The ceremony has been organised by Ms Smith's daughter, Cynthia Lopez, who was also able to provide some of the missing details about her mother, whose fate sparked outrage across the nation and came to symbolise some of the divisions in American society.

"I feel that my country abandoned her. Our government did not do enough for our people," Ms Lopez said, speaking from her home in San Antonio, Texas. "Five days her body was there. I have had people tell me that they went up to the police and were [asking them to help]. Finally we can do this."

Ms Smith, 65, was killed by a hit-and-run driver the day after Hurricane Katrina struck at the end of August, when she had gone out to the local stores. At the time, her partner Max Keene said: "A guy came round to say she was lying by the side of the road with a piece of cardboard over her. It was me that went and put the tarp over her.

"I spoke to the police and asked them to take her away but they just told me to get the hell out of there."

Ms Smith, who was born in Linares, Mexico, in 1939, was known to her friends and family as an ebullient, energetic woman who loved books and clothes and shoes and was a regular at the local Catholic church.

"Who can forget her boisterous laughter, flamboyant dress attire, abundance of shoes, purses, jewellery and her numerous styles and colours of wigs?" said her daughter. "[She] had a great love for her children, brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews and those who are less fortunate."

Ms Lopez said Mr Keene had been struggling since the death of his partner and that he was not planning to attend the ceremony. He had received some comfort by the return of the couple's dog. Clyde was thought to have been lost in the storm but he was in fact being cared for by an animal sanctuary in Los Angeles.

Meanwhile, some New Orleans residents are trying to organise a permanent memorial to Ms Smith. Dr Lance Hill, a professor of history at the city's Tulane University, worked as a volunteer during the storm and came to learn about Ms Smith's makeshift grave. He said he had made inquiries about a memorial at the site.

© 2005 Independent News & Media (UK) Ltd.  11/18/2005


Deadly Roads - Hit and Run Accidents