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December 17, 2006

The Names of Ghosts

With one week until Christmas, Iraq in the throes of a civil, political and military bloodbath, and thousands of Northwest residents waiting -- praying -- for their electric power to come back on, we are, justifiably, distracted from other enduring stories of struggle and loss. It's easy to forget that, from a snug pocket of the American South, an entire population has been scattered among ruins.

The effects of Hurricane Katrina are varied and unrelenting. The population of New Orleans is less than half its original number. Many relocated to Baton Rouge, while those who could fled to Houston, Dallas or Atlanta. Still others are struggling to acclimate and make ends meet in cities as far away as Boston, Chicago, Las Vegas, San Francisco and Seattle. The federal housing agency, HUD, plans to tear down 5,000 brick-fortified public housing units and replace them with new homes (mostly condos) in an effort to gentrify the area and spur economic development. But where will the old residents of public housing end up? Last week FEMA appealed the recent ruling by U.S. District Court Judge Richard Leon ordering the agency to resume rent payments for hurricane evacuees around the country. Leon had declared the government's cessation of payments to be unconstitutional and labeled FEMA's bureacracy "Kafka-esque".

Meanwhile, the past few days saw a demonstration by housing advocates in front of Mayor Nagin's residence, and a nearly unanimous vote of the Louisiana Legislature calling on the governor to fire ICF Emergency Management Services of Virginia, the company contracted to run the $8 billion housing prgram that has been interminably slow to get going.

But there's a silent class of NOLA's natives who remain unaccounted for: those who died in the storm and are difficult to identify -- because water does things to bodies that have lain long in it, making DNA almost non-existent. The AP's Rukmini Callimachi tells a gruesome story, the kind usually seen on television's C.S.I., that brings the shock, horror and sadness right back to the home of the heart. The bodies are "stuck in a forensic purgatory -- unknown, unclaimed and unable to be buried more than 15 months after Hurricane Katrina made landfall". It's the story of the lost and -- in one case -- found. Callimachi recounts the bittersweet saga of two elderly brothers, their release from that purgatory and how forensic investigators grasped onto the smallest details to help complete the cycle of life for one grateful family.

He shoved the door open. The mud that once flowed across the floor had turned gray and crusty, and as it hardened it receded and revealed some of the dead men's belongings -- like the medicine bottle, lying in a corner of the living room.

Stone knelt down, picked it up and scanned the label, holding it to the oval of light  pouring in from a broken window.

Turning it in his hand, he read: Warfarin, 5 mg. The medication -- typically prescribed to prevent blood cots -- was last filled at the neighborhood's Sav-A-Center on Aug. 18, 2005, 10 days before the storm.

Also on the label was the address of apartment 4D. And a smudged name.

"How do you pronounce that?" asked Stone, struggling to sound out the unfamiliar syllables.

Keistut Pranckunas.

It's like uttering the name of a ghost.

Posted by shoephone on December 17, 2006 at 12:32 PM in Miscellany | Permalink


Gads, shoephone. I am so glad you had the fortitude to read about this and give me just a glimpse. I can't stand it. This is the United States of America. How is it that we have people struggling to regain a piece of their lives or even to be buried with some semblance of dignity in what is left of one of our major cities? Thanks.

Posted by: Lynn | Dec 18, 2006 9:38:41 PM

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