American Hauntings Podcast

The Ghosts of Hurricane Katrina

Episode Summary

Today we discuss Hurricane Katrina and the aftermath that left a city in ruin.

Episode Notes

Today we discuss Hurricane Katrina and the aftermath that left a city in ruin.

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Want to read ahead for this season? Check out the book Haunted New Orleans by Troy Taylor.

This episode was written by Troy Taylor. Produced and edited by Cody Beck.

Intro music by Charlie Brockus

Episode Transcription

Welcome to the new episode of American Hauntings, the podcast dedicated to the history, hauntings, legends, and lore of America’s past. The show is hosted and produced by Cody Beck and written and performed by Troy Taylor – that’s me -- and we are now in our fourth season, “Haunted New Orleans.”

If you are tuning into the podcast for the first time, we suggest you start listening to the “Haunted New Orleans” season with episode 53, which is where this season begins and where we set the stage for the many dark tales ahead. In each episode of the season, we’ll be revealing the history, mystery, spirits, scandals, and sins of New Orleans – a city that we believe is the most haunted in America.

Sorry, but I don’t have anything funny to say to kick this one off. This episode delves into a part of the city’s history that far too many of us remember… a time of disaster, death, corruption, and cover-ups, unlike anything that New Orleans had seen before. 

And yes, it left some hauntings behind. 

This is not the first time that the words “disaster” and “New Orleans” have been used together during this season of the podcast. We’ve talked frequently about the harsh conditions, the weather, and the illnesses that plagued both the early settlers and those who worked to turn New Orleans into a modern city. 

From the earliest days of the city, it was almost annually infected with some kind of epidemic that usually came aboard the ships from the West Indies, Cuba, and Mexico. In 1832, the city was devastated by a cholera epidemic. Dr. Theodore Clapp, a minister who came to New Orleans a decade before, wrote about the epidemic. In his journal, he noted:

“Many persons, even of fortune and popularity, died in their beds without aid, unnoticed and unknown, and lay there for days unburied. In almost every house can be seen the sick, the dying, and the dead. All the stores, banks, and places of business were closed.”

Sounds kind of familiar right now, doesn’t it?

But it gets worse as he continues:

“There were no means, no instruments for carrying on the ordinary affairs of business, for all the drays, carts, carriages, hand and common wheelbarrows, as well as hearses, were employed in the transportation of corpses. Words cannot describe my sensations when I first beheld the awful sight of carts being driven to the graveyard, and there upturned, and their contents discharged as so many loads of lumber, without a single mark of mourning and respect.”

And that was, by no means, the only plague to come to New Orleans. Between 1817 and 1860, there were 23 yellow fever epidemics that left more than 28,000 men, women, and children dead. The worst of them was in 1853 and, by itself, killed more than 12,000 people. 

Yellow fever – unknown to the people at the time – was carried by the bite of a mosquito. New Orleans used rainwater cisterns to catch the water from the roofs of houses from drinking. The still, clean water was a perfect breeding ground for mosquitoes. 

In 1868, a chapel was built to Saint Roch (ROE-SHH) by Father Peter Thevis to fulfill a promise he’d made after his congregation was spared by yellow fever. Its altar contained a wooden statue of the saint with his faithful dog. At one time, the shrine’s walls were hung with countless replicas of limbs, discarded crutches, and relics brought there by the faithful to testify to cures that were brought about by the intercession of Saint Roch (ROE-SHH). 

But his prayers were not enough to keep the disease from returning to New Orleans over and over again throughout the end of the nineteenth century, killing thousands more. In the summer of 1878 alone, more than 27,000 people died from the illness. 

The city had its last epidemic in 1905 when it was finally discovered that the illness was being caused by mosquitoes. The health service began a new treatment and eliminated the mosquitoes, using volunteers to check every house and cistern in the city. They salted gutters, drained pools, and thousands of lives were saved with what they called a “shotgun quarantine.”

And yes, that’s exactly what it sounds like.

Only 423 people died that summer – compared to the thousands of the past – and New Orleans never had another outbreak of the terrible disease.

But nature has never been kind to the city. It was built on a swamp after all, below sea level, and was infested with every kind of pest you can imagine. And when the city was built, the early architectural materials were not exactly conducive to long life. The early French colony was built completely from wood and timber. And since all lighting and cooking was done with open flame, it was an often very flammable place to live.

As mentioned in an earlier episode, one of the city’s greatest fires began on Good Friday of 1788. Because it was a religious holiday, the church bells were not allowed to ring a warning to the city. The fire soon burned out of control and destroyed the city, including the monastery of the monks who wouldn’t ring the alarm bells. Only the Ursuline convent survived since it was built from brick and tile. 

New Orleans was rebuilt by the Spanish, using brick, plaster, and tile, creating what we still call the “French Quarter” even though its design is Spanish. 

But disasters in New Orleans were not just disease and fires. The location of New Orleans had caused problems since the beginning. Only a year after the original settlement was laid out, the Mississippi River flooded the community, leading to the construction of the first levees. But they didn’t always work.

The first attempts to keep water out of New Orleans used open ditches that emptied into Bayou St. John, which drained into Lake Pontchartrain (PON-CHA-TRAIN) but between 1735 and 1927, there were 38 floods in the lower section of the rover. Nine times the river flooded into New Orleans – not because the levees failed – but because water flowed into the city from other breaks. 

A break in Kenner in 1816 caused water to flood as far as Chartres Street (CHAR-TERS) and another in 1849 flooded 220 squares in New Orleans and drive 12,000 people from their homes.

In 1871, a break at the site of the present spillway above New Orleans, raising the level of the lake and breaking a levee at Hagan Avenue, caused the city to flood. 

During s spring of heaving flooding in 1927, levees had to be dynamited to save the city. As the Mississippi River rose, panic seized the city, and even though everything that could be done was done to strengthen the levees, it came to be realized that it wasn’t enough. The people of St. Bernard Parish were evacuated, and their levee was destroyed to lower the level of the river. 

After the flood of 1927, the U.S Government began taking responsibility for flood control. New spillways and levees were built, old ones were strengthened, and the waters were supposed to divert before they threatened New Orleans. 

But, as we’ll soon see, the best-laid plans of the federal government often fell apart.

On September 29, 1915, a hurricane struck the Mississippi Gulf Coast, and New Orleans was battered by more than 120 miles per hour winds. Several people were killed, and the city sustained $13 million in damage. Over the next two weeks, more than 22 inches of rain fell, destroying homes that had lost their roofs in the hurricane winds. 

Fifty years later, in September 1965, Hurricane Betsy roared out of the Gulf of Mexico toward Louisiana. The center of the storm passed just 35 miles southwest of the city. Winds of more than 150 miles per hour struck New Orleans. 

There were other hurricanes to hit the city in the years that followed, like Camille in 1969 and Bob, which passed just west of New Orleans in 1979, but it was Betsy that proved to city and government leaders that New Orleans was not prepared for a massive storm. Betsy brought tidal surges, which overtopped the protective levees in the lower parts of the city and caused a disastrous flood. The terrible winds, which accounted for about half the damage to the city, caused the river to rise nine feet in only a few hours. 

In the wake of the storm, more than 13,000 homes and businesses in the poorest sections of the city were flooded, some to a depth of seven feet or more. 

And then, in 2005, came Katrina.

Hurricane Katrina first struck the Gulf Coast on August 29 as a Category 3 storm. It would soon surge into Category 5 but weakened before striking land. When it made landfall, it buffeted the region with winds between 120 and 140 miles per hour. The winds and rain caused damage throughout the city, but it was the aftermath of Katrina that truly devastated New Orleans. 

The floods should never have happened. Yes, New Orleans is barely above sea level, and its surrounded by water and swampland, but the levees and sea walls that were built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers were supposed to protest the city. The greatest fear in any storm was not that the levees would break but, like in 1965, that a surge would cause waters to rise above the levees. 

As Katrina took aim at the city, the mayor issued a mandatory evacuation. About 80 percent of the residents managed to leave, with another 10,000 headed to the Superdome for shelter. Others decided to ride out the storm at home. Katrina passed, but then the disaster occurred – the storm surge breached the levees and drainage canals and flooded over 70 percent of the city, mostly Lakeview, St. Bernard Parish, and the Ninth Ward.  

And that’s when things got really bad.

The federal government stalled assistance to the city for days – allegedly because officials were unclear how bad the damage was or how many people needed help. The Coast Guard began rescuing people stranded on their roofs and inside their homes with helicopters and boats, but it was locals with boats who got most people to safety – or what was passing for safety.

A large part of the city looked like a war zone. Police officers had fled the city in advance of the storm, and looters roamed the streets. Another 15,000 people headed for the Superdome, where food and supplies were already running out. Now, with more than 25,000 inside, the roof was starting to leak, and chaos reigned. The Superdome was evacuated and thousands headed to the Convention Center, hoping to find help, but just found more people also looking for food, drinking water, and medical supplies. Hospitals had no power and needed to get their patients out of the city. Everything was shut down, even in parts of the city not affected by the flooding, and eventually, National Guard units were sent in from all over the country to lend assistance and maintain order.

It was frightening to see – in 2005 -- how quickly things could break down in a city that was devastated and then left to fend for itself with inadequate food, shelter, and services. 

In time, national outreach and fundraising began as the city sat underwater for weeks. The federal government refused to take the blame. City officials refused to explain how it allowed everything to so quickly fall apart, and even today, 15 years later, the exact death toll from Katrina remains unknown – although we do know that at least 1,800 people died because of the storm and the flooding that followed it. 

There is still no memorial listing the names of Katrina victims, still no way to know how many remain uncounted or unidentified, and still no agreement on how to count victims if an event like Katrina hits the United States again – as we are now finding out with the coronavirus. 15 years later, we are still in the dark. 

Death was inescapable in New Orleans in the weeks after the levees failed – for the people who remained there, for the first responders, and to a horrified nation. News outlets headlined the latest counts of the dead and occasionally showed grisly images of bodies floating in flooded neighborhoods.

Like many efforts in the wake of Katrina, counting the dead was hampered mostly by bureaucracy.  The official effort to recover bodies had stalled as local and federal agencies decided who would do so — and how. Eventually, procedures were set, but collecting, identifying, and counting the dead was an emotionally wrenching, often gruesome, sometimes thankless job. Workers had to walk through hospitals where the power had been knocked out. Extreme heat decomposed bodies. The sheer size of the affected areas meant each body might have to go through several checkpoints on its way to the morgue. 

By its own admission, Louisiana never finished counting the dead. One year after Katrina, the state’s medical examiner pledged to keep working until every victim was identified. Four years after that, he confessed that he could not get the time or resources to finish the job. The true number, officials said, will probably not ever be known.”

The toll on New Orleans was not just from the body count. It came from the loss of the city’s lifeblood and culture, as well. Hundreds of thousands of people were displaced by the storm. Many were moved to Texas to live in FEMA shelters or fled to cities where friends and relatives offered shelter and work. Many of them simply never came back.

They took with them the soul of the city – the food, the music, and everything that brings New Orleans to life. It was years before the bars, restaurants, music, and tourism recovered – although many will tell you that it still has not recovered even today. Katrina became a cultural touchstone of the city’s history – before and after Katrina. I still remember Mardi Gras in 2006. It was an almost eerie event that tried hard to recreate the joy of years gone by but didn’t quite succeed. But still, those who loved the city lined the streets to show support of a New Orleans that was done, but not out, that had been beaten but was not giving up. 

Katrina will always be remembered as the city’s darkest hour, and as we know, it’s usually those hours that give birth to stories of ghosts and hauntings. 

In the aftermath of the hurricane, National Guard troops from across the country were sent to New Orleans to lend a hand. One night, several of them were driving down Canal Street, and the driver saw a group of disheveled pedestrians in his headlights. They seemed to just come out of nowhere. Going to fast to avoid them, he braced for the impact, but they suddenly disappeared.

Other responders who came to New Orleans found their own ghosts. If you walk far enough along St. Charles Avenue, you’ll find the Sophie B. Wright Charter School on Napoleon Avenue. After Katrina, members of the California National Guard used the building as a staging area for assignments throughout the city. Many of the guardsmen reported strange goings-on, including unexplainable noises, eerie shadows, and even the ghost of a young girl.

Sergeant Robin Hairston told a local television station: “I was in my sleeping bag, and I opened my eyes and in the doorway was a little girl. It wasn’t my imagination.”

Her story was confirmed by Specialist Rosalee Leanor: “I was using the restroom,” she said, “and I just saw a little shadow kind of looming in front of me.”

A third soldier claimed that when she opened a cleaning supply closet, she saw a little girl laughing at her.  

A few years ago, reports began to circulate that New Orleans’s former Charity Hospital was haunted. The hospital was closed after Katrina, and yet, nurses, orderlies, and other staff members at nearby New Orleans Hospital began reporting seeing lights turning on and off inside the abandoned building. At the time of the sighting, there had been no electricity in the hospital in more than a decade. 

A nurse was the first to see the lights – what appeared to be a small Christmas tree in one of the hospital’s upper windows. An anesthesia technician who also worked at New Orleans Hospital spotted them, too. 

The police wrote the whole thing off as a break-in – not explaining the lack of electricity in the building – but others believe the building is haunted by the spirits of those who died there after Katrina. 

And then there is the story of Vera Smith.

No one knows for sure what happened to Vera. The 65-year-old went out on August 29, the night after Katrina made landfall. According to her common-law husband, Max Keene, she went out for cigarettes and beer and didn’t come back. The next morning, her body was found at the intersection of Jackson and Magazine. She was probably hit by a drunk driver who fled the scene, but what is known for sure is that this happened in the middle of Katrina, and emergency services were focused on the living, not the dead. Vera’s body lay unattended and abandoned. Her husband, elderly and in bad health, put a sheet over her body, unsure what to do in those days of chaos. 

After five days in New Orleans heat, a man named John Lee decided something more serious was required. He went to the police, begging them to take care of the body. The cops couldn’t be bothered but wouldn’t let Lee move the body. So, he buried her on the spot – a makeshift grave at the corner of Jackson and Magazine.

A few neighbors helped out and covered her body with a white tarp, which they weighed down with bricks. Another neighbor, an artist named Maggie McEleney, painted a cross on the tarp and a few words – HERE LIES VERA, GOD HELP US.

Vera’s body was later recovered and cremated, and her remains were sent to relatives in Texas. But she was not forgotten in New Orleans. The people who knew Vera made a memorial for her, created by local artist Simon Hardeveld, that had a simple iron cross with a clock face that was wound with barbed wire. Above the clock were the words VERA, DIED AUGUST 29, O5.

It might have been then that Vera’s ghost began to appear, but no one knows. Again, what we do know is that the owner of the property, unable to sell it, came to believe that Vera’s memorial was a sort of voodoo charm that prevented him from making a sale and so he destroyed the memorial with a sledgehammer.

But Vera was not going to leave so easily.

She became a symbol of those lost after the storm. In a city filled with tragedies, a woman who had been homeless, a drifter, struggling with alcohol – but beloved by all who knew her – was a woman worth remembering. Neighbors and friends told stories of Vera’s costume jewelry, her elaborate dresses, her brightly colored wigs, and her two small dogs. She was a character. People loved her, and they knew she had deserved more – in life and in death. 

She hadn’t either – and trouble followed.

At the same corner where Vera died – and her memorial was destroyed – a two-story burger restaurant called Charcoal opened up. This was not your typical burger joint. Their tagline was “as gourmet as a burger gets,” and you can choose between beef, chicken, veggie, elk, buffalo, venison, shrimp, or salmon, between your buns.

But the restaurant’s opening did not go well. A brand new meat grinder stopped working, water lines inexplicably broke, and other strange mishaps occurred. Charcoal’s had a tough time getting established in the community, and business was slow. The idea that the place was haunted started as a joke among employees, but after a year of bizarre happenings, the staff started taking it seriously. Locals knew this was the corner where the body of Vera Smith had been found – what if she had never left?

Reports about a haunting at the restaurant were taken so seriously that a local television channel dispatched a film crew. This is New Orleans, after all. 

The owners decided that if Vera had remained behind, they wanted to do something to honor her.  They contacted artist Simon Hardeveld—who’d made the original memorial for Vera – and asked him to create a second one, this one attached to the restaurant, in hopes it might quiet her spirit. Simon built a memorial that includes a working fountain and bright colors – something the colorful Vera would have loved. 

There are some who claim the ghost story was pure fiction and used Vera’s death as a marketing ploy to boost business, but even if true, it’s something that New Orleans has always done – making myths for a city that is constantly changing. 

When the owner told reporters that Vera was the heart and soul of the restaurant and they wanted customers to support it to show their love for her, it really didn’t matter if the story was true. What mattered was that Vera was getting the recognition that she deserved, and in a larger sense, the story was offering recognition to the hundreds of other people – named and unnamed – who died during Katrina.