DATE March 15, 2006 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Dr. Louis Cataldie, author of "Coroner's Journal:
Stalking Death in Louisiana," discusses handling and identifying
corpses in New Orleans after Katrina
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. As the coroner for East Baton Rouge
Parish, Dr. Louis Cataldie says he served as the state's official witness to
the worst that humanity has to offer, investigating some of the most
despicable crimes and violent deaths imaginable. But, he adds, nothing
compared to the sheer devastation of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. After
Katrina struck, Dr. Cataldie was appointed Lousiana's first state medical
examiner and given the job of running the makeshift morgue in St. Gabriel,
outside New Orleans. He oversees the process of identifying the dead bodies
that have been found in the field and determining the causes of death. So
far, 910 such bodies have been found, 50 remain unidentified.
The memoir that Dr. Cataldie had been writing was ready to go to press at the
end of the summer. Just before publication, he added a few pages about his
work with Katrina victims. The book has just been published. It's called
"Coroner's Journal: Stalking Death in Louisiana." Just an aside to parents:
We're going to be talking about his work after the hurricane in ways that may
be too graphic for children.
Are there still bodies being found?
Dr. LOUIS CATALDIE (Author, "Coroner's Journal: Stalking Death in
Louisiana"): Yes, ma'am there are. In the Ninth Ward we currently have
cadaver dogs there because some of those buildings are scheduled for
demolition and we certainly don't want anybody's mother being bulldozed into a
trash pile. We won't tolerate that. So what we're doing--what New Orleans
Fire Department is doing--and the state has just appointed these folks--is
that we--they are going in, seeing if there are human remains. They're taking
the houses apart in such a way that allows the dogs to gain entry, if you
would. By taking out some areas they allow the house to breathe, and if there
are human remains inside, the dog can detect that.
People ask me, `Can the dogs detect human remains six months after they're
deceased?' The answer is it's absolutely true. I can tell you that the New
Orleans Police Department was in a house on Lake View on the 3rd, I believe it
was, or the 2nd, could not find human remains. The cadaver dog went in two
days later and within 30 seconds had found the deceased individual who was
lodged between some duct work in the attic. So the dogs are very beneficial.
GROSS: Is the process of identifying the hurricane victims any different than
from the standard process of--not that there is a standard process, I
suppose--of identifying a body? I mean, what are some of the challenges that
you were hit with identifying Katrina victims?
Dr. CATALDIE: Well, we--the challenges have been legion, actually, because
we didn't get to recover those human remains until several days after the
death had occurred. And of course, we're still recovering people six months
later, so time and the natural decomposition process has taken its toll on our
ability to identify these folks. Of course, many people drifted. They have
no identifiers and they have no clothing, and at this point in time we have
approximately 50 people--actually 46--who we cannot identify, and we're hoping
that family members will come forward and will be able to identify those
GROSS: You mentioned that a lot of the bodies that have come to you are
already in the process of decomposing. I would think that bodies who died in
the flood would decompose more rapidly, or at least become more disfigured by
being in the water and maybe make it harder for you to identify them?
Dr. CATALDIE: The water--and certainly as you know, it was a toxic type of
situation with the water, due to the chemicals that had floated up as well as
the bacteria from the sewage lines that were flowing up into the water--so,
that certainly, in all probability, it helped the death--helped the
decomposition process accelerate. We also have people, unfortunately, who
were caught up in attics and they couldn't get out because the water was
lapping at the ceiling inside the house and so they couldn't get out. And the
temperatures of 110 degrees or more made them susceptible to dehydration, and
of course heat stroke, heat exhaustion and ultimate death.
GROSS: So, how--what tools do you use when you're dealing with, say a body
that was in the water--in the toxic water for a long time?
Dr. CATALDIE: Unfortunately, many of these bodies had drifted and so we
don't have even the benefit of an address. And of course there was the fact
that most of the street signs in many of these areas were down anyway, so it
was quite difficult how those were moved. So an address wasn't that
beneficial. A house could be on one street and now it's four or five streets
over. So addresses weren't that beneficial. That was one major issue that we
Not having identifiers makes it extremely difficult, and when--the first
thing, of course, we would try to look for were any kind of identifiers such
as a tattoo or things like that. Failing that, we certainly looked to
orthopedic devices that somebody may have--pacemakers, personal affects,
fingerprinting. We had some initial success there, but as time went on, of
course, the decomposition process and animal activity made that impossible,
because unfortunately the animals tend to attack the smaller bones of the
hands. So we lost that capability.
We, of course maintained the x-ray capability and we maintained dental
capability, but unfortunately many of the records in the dental clinics were
flooded and the forays in there to get those dental records have met with
mixed success. Although, we have successfully identified a great many people
successfully through dental x-rays, primarily through the interest of Dr.
Doug Cross, who was a local dentist and has gone back in there and help
retrieve those records. And failing that, we're now at the point where we're
relying almost totally on DNA.
GROSS: Yes, so how does the DNA process work? Are you--are a lot of families
who've lost loved ones sending DNA evidence of those loved ones to you so you
can try to match it?
Dr. CATALDIE: Well, we have--again, I hate to keep telling about how many
problems we have, but every victim we took a piece of tibia, a bone sample,
and all that goes--all those victims have DNA profiles that have been run.
But, if I've got 1400 missing people, researching 1400 families makes it quite
difficult. So therefore, we are requesting if people have found their loved
ones that they had reported them missing, that they call into us so that we
can stop the search for somebody who's already been found. It is just quite a
monumental task to gather DNA on thousands of people.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Dr. Louis Cataldie. He's the
Louisiana state medical examiner, and he has been overseeing the
identification of the dead after Hurricane Katrina. He's also written a new
book. It's called "Coroner's Journal: Stalking Death in Louisiana."
What were some of the typical causes of death that you've seen in the
Dr. CATALDIE: Well, certainly we saw the drownings. And unfortunately, we
even had children who were swept away from roof tops and ultimately drowned.
So drowning was a major factor. But a lot of these folks were elderly and
they just refused to leave. And an elderly person who may have survived the
hurricane and thought they were home free, unfortunately succumbed to the
floods that followed. And as I mentioned earlier, the dehydration and the
fact that if you're a diabetic and you're stuck in your attic with no insulin,
it's just a matter of time until you enter a diabetic coma. I suspect lots of
these people died in delirium and heat exhaustion. They were horrible deaths.
GROSS: One of the things you have to do as medical examiner is to rule out
foul play when you're looking at a body. Did you have to rule out foul play
in the bodies that came to you after Katrina?
Dr. CATALDIE: Yes, that's absolutely true because upon--when the human
remains were retrieved and brought to the victim identification unit or the
morgue, what happened was they were examined immediately by a forensic
pathologist. If there was any indication at all of foul play, that
pathologist stopped the entire process. The jurisdictional coroner--Dr.
Minyard in Orleans Parish, Dr. Bertucci in the St. Bernard Parish--was
immediately notified and that case was immediately labeled a forensic case and
it went into the jurisdiction and autopsy by that coroner or his--and/or his
GROSS: Is it hard to tell whether somebody was murdered or died in the flood
when their body has been in the flooded toxic water for a long time?
Dr. CATALDIE: Actually that depends on who you've got doing the examination.
And we had some real good folks doing that. You could certainly ascertain
from them. Now, initially you may miss something like a gun wound, but if you
missed the gun shot wound, ultimately the total-body x-ray is going to pick up
the fragment if it's there. Total-body x-ray's going to also pick up any
broken bones and things like that that might show a track of a bullet. So,
although some people said, `This is a great time to kill somebody,' which is
totally ludicrous, the forensics are still there, and nobody's given up on
trying to find the perpetrator.
GROSS: Did you find many bodies that appeared to be murdered?
Dr. CATALDIE: Actually, I believe--and Dr. Minyard can certainly correct me
on this--I believe we had 18 total gunshot wounds. Some of those were
self-inflicted. You know the suicide rate anecdotally appears to have
increased. We had people, first-responders, who would go home and found their
families drowned and subsequently take their own lives.
GROSS: My guest is Dr. Louis Cataldie, the Louisiana state medical examiner.
His memoir is called "Coroner's Journal." We'll talk more after a break. This
is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: My guest is Dr. Louis Cataldie. After Hurricane Katrina he was
appointed Louisiana state medical examiner and given the job of running the
makeshift morgue for Katrina victims. His new memoir is called "Coroner's
Would you describe the morgue that you set up after the hurricane?
Dr. CATALDIE: The initial morgue was set up in St. Gabriel, Louisiana.
They had taken over a school and a warehouse. And that warehouse functioned
quite, quite well as far as I was concerned. Initially when the human remains
was brought in to the facility we did spray them down with a--with a chlorine
mix, if you would. From there they were put through a series of stations.
Now a tracker is assigned--or an escort, if you would--to each person--each
human remains that entered that facility in order to make sure that, number
one, all the stations were seen and everything was met, and also to complete
the chain of custody. So the tracker essentially goes through administration
and the person is initially examined, as I said, by a forensic pathologist to
determine whether or not that person would continue to go into our processes
or would immediately go into the coroner's jurisdiction as a case that had a
high index of suspicion of foul play, such as a head injury or something like
From there, photographs are taken. All the personal effects are photographed,
all the clothing is photographed. The next step of course, would be that we
would attempt to get fingerprints if the person was fingerprintable.
The next station would be the dental, and they have a tremendous system called
the DEXA system. If indeed we have retrieved your dental x-rays and have put
them into the system and we take your x-ray, it can actually--it searches that
data base that we been--put it into the system and can get a match within
about 45 minutes, which is really a great news.
But interestingly enough, a lot of the times the dental records, the
emulsification has come off. So what we had instead of an x-ray was just a
clear piece of plastic, if you would. But it had been imprinted on the
envelope itself. So you could open up the envelope, take a mirror image
picture of that and you had the dental x-ray. So those are some of the things
that those forensic dentists were able to do in order to get a match. It was
really, really great, so we were very pleased with the outcome there. We had
a lot of dental identification, which is as good as a fingerprint, obviously.
From there the person goes into anthropology in an attempt to ascertain the
age of the individual. Utilizing the ischium-pubis, and utilizing some of the
ends of the ribs the anthropologist can get a pretty good idea of the person's
age. They can also get a pretty good idea of racial characteristics based on,
primarily, examination of the skull. If you have got a person who's totally
unknown and whose skin has decomposed, that's extremely beneficial to us.
Anthropology can also look for any type of unusual compression fractures of
vertebrae and things like that.
The next station of course will be the autopsy station. Autopsies were under
the jurisdiction of the coroner. Mostly in this case, of course it was Dr.
Frank Minyard of Orleans Parish. We also did total-body x-rays, as I
mentioned earlier. And that's extremely important. If you have got a pace
maker, I can get your identity relatively quickly. And, of course, we also
are looking for orthopedic appliances and things like that.
And upon conclusion or that, the person is put back into a fresh body bag and
put back into a refrigeration area.
GROSS: Did you have adequate refrigeration for all the bodies that came to
Dr. CATALDIE: Actually we relied on refrigeration trucks. And we did have
adequate refrigeration. But, you know, even in refrigerated situations, there
is a certain amount of decomposition that's going to take place, albeit very
slowly. A certain amount of decomposition does take place. So most of our
work was accomplished there at St. Gabriel, and then, of course, another
facility was up at Carville. Now both of these facilities are federal
GROSS: So the trucks that you were using, the refrigerator trucks, were these
trucks that usually deliver refrigerated foods?
Dr. CATALDIE: Well, of course once you use a truck for this purpose, it can
no longer be utilized for that. And these were primarily, from what I
understand, FEMA trucks or FEMA rentals.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Dr. Louis Cataldie. He's the
Louisiana state medical examiner. He's been overseeing the identification of
the dead after Hurricane Katrina, and he's written a new memoir which is
called "Coroner's Journal: Stalking Death in Louisiana."
You're a man who is always surrounded by the dead. I mean, that's your job.
But I imagine you've never been surrounded by so many bodies at one time, so
many bodies who--you know, people who died from the same cause. What impact
has that had on you personally to be doing this work after Katrina?
Dr. CATALDIE: Well, Terry, most of the nightmares have stopped. At least, I
believe they have. I can tell you that walking through hospitals and stepping
over human remains was perhaps one of the most difficult things, or impacting
things that's ever happened to me. It's--you can see that there were valiant
efforts at these hospitals, and the electricity was out. And you can see
people who still have oxygen on and respirators in place, but there was no
electricity and no oxygen. So a valiant battle, but in the end a lot of folks
died. It's just--it's pretty horrific walking through a hospital that's all
torn up and the windows are blown out and dead bodies are there. And you know
these guys tried everything they could. And that's tough.
GROSS: You mentioned nightmares. Do you usually have nightmares? Was this
Dr. CATALDIE: It's unusual for me. But, you know, you just--you're impacted
with these things and the best thing you can do is talk about them. But
unfortunately, the intensity was such that you really didn't have much of a
time to break and talk to folks about it. And, you know, subsequently, down
the road, of course, you get to talk about things and that's still important.
It's important to share those experiences and get them out in the open.
GROSS: What were the nightmares like?
Dr. CATALDIE: Oh, I remember one vividly of having all these people at the
morgue walking by me--excuse me--telling me to find them and get them home.
And that was a kind of a recurrent theme for awhile there. Like they were
just kind of float by and say, `Hey, you know, I'm so-and-so. You're supposed
to find me and you're supposed to find my kids and get me home.' So, let's
talk about something else.
GROSS: Yeah, no, I would say that's a nightmare. But that's kind of how you
describe your responsibilities in your book. Like, being responsible to the
dead. They don't talk to you in real life, but you still feel that sense of
responsibility to them.
Dr. CATALDIE: Well, when you look at the photographs that people have sent
in of their loved ones--because we need photographs and we need smiling
photographs, because even if we don't have dental records, if we've got a
smiling photograph, lots of times we can match some of the dental
characteristics with the smile of what we are finding in the morgue. And you
look at those smiling photographs and you see people with their families and,
you know, you really want to get them back home. You know, I'm talking about
yearbooks that have a picture that was taken in the 1950s. We can still use
that, even now. If there are some unusual dentition, we can match that
dentition in the picture against someone who you have tentative ID. And if
I've got a tentative ID, I know which family members to call to get DNA.
GROSS: You write in your book that you had asked the chaplains to say
ecumenical prayers over each of the remains when they were found. Why did you
want to do that?
Dr. CATALDIE: Lots of reasons for that. You know, I think--we're--it's an
ecumenical prayer. It is the prayer of thanksgiving. I think our people
deserve that. They deserve that dignity. It also assured me--let me tell
you, a chaplain in the field is a good thing to have, because if anything
disrespectful is going on they're going to come--number one, they're going to
intervene and, number two, they're going to let me know about it. So I guess
I kind of double-dipped there because they were an excellent quality control
in addition to providing dignity and the prayer of thanksgiving for those
folks. I owe a lot to those guys who went out in the field and did that.
GROSS: What is the prayer?
Dr. CATALDIE: I don't have it in front of me. It is essentially a prayer of
thanksgiving, the same prayer that was used at the World Trade Center. It
simply says that we're thankful for the person being found, we're thankful for
the persons who found them, and we hope that the person will be made whole in
the arms of God.
GROSS: You know, obviously the chaplains were very--are very important to
you. At the same time, you describe an experience with a chaplain who sat
down next to you after the hurricane and gave you what you describe as a "TV
evangelical smile." And you write, "I wonder if he practices it in front of
the mirror." And then you got really kind of annoyed with him and you describe
him as, quote, "the kind of guy who goes back and tells his buddies how much
stress I was under and how he was blessed to be there for me." You say that
you've met a lot of chaplains. "Some of them are here for the right reasons
and some of them are here for themselves." What do you mean that some are here
Dr. CATALDIE: Well, and again that may be my own projection, the guy may be
a hundred percent stand-up guy. It was a particularly horrific day. I had
been out there in the field with the chaplains who I really--who are out doing
the deal, who are out there helping recover human remains, who are going up in
those houses, who are there for the sights and the sounds and who are getting
out there filthy with me and who smelled of death. And you know, these guys
really understand. I guess the guy--I'll give him the benefit of the doubt,
he caught me wrong. And he had this nice clean shirt. And you know, when he
asked me how I'm doing it just didn't hit me right at the time.
You know, I got the impression that some of the folks who were coming down may
have had their own agendas. And I don't know that. I guess I shouldn't
project or judging. But the bottom line is, you can tell the people who are
real and the people who've been there. I don't need somebody coming up and
telling me how many disasters they have been to. Right off the bat when
somebody tells me that I get that creepy feeling in the back of my next and
it's almost as if we are keeping score or have a bunch of pins on us for
different disasters they've encountered. I--you know, this isn't about
keeping score. This is about my people. And, I don't know. I guess this guy
caught me wrong, Terry, and I just didn't feel the sincerity. And it could
have been about me.
GROSS: Dr. Louis Cataldie is the Louisiana state medical examiner and author
of the new memoir, "Coroner's Journal." He'll be back in the second half of
the show. I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: Coming up. The clues that maggots provide for coroners. We continue
our conversation with Dr. Louis Cataldie. Also, we meet two New Orleans high
school teachers who are trying to help their students get back on track.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Dr. Louis Cataldie.
After Hurricane Katrina he was appointed the Louisiana state medical examiner
and given the job of overseeing the makeshift morgue for hurricane victims.
His new book, "Coroner's Journal," describes some of his post Katrina work.
It also describes his work with murder victims and suicides when he served as
coroner in East Baton Rouge Parish.
One of the things you have is, like, your coroner's kit. What do you have in
Dr. CATALDIE: Well, when I was coroner I had all sorts of things in that
kit, and it kind of just grew from needing things. Of course you have your
protective equipment, such as have gloves. You need lighting sources.
Some of the unique things that you need, of course, is a thermometer in order
to be able to take a body temperature. That can either be a rectal
temperature or an organ temperature. I usually prefer the liver, quite
honestly. So you have to have a scalpel. You also have to have a marker pen.
If I was in a situation in which I needed to determine time of death or
bracket a time of death, or certainly get the information where I could go
back and bracket the time of death, I would probably put a circle just under
the right rib, or the right lower rib cage, make an incision there--I take
pictures as I do this entire process. I take an ambient temperature of the
room, and subsequently insert the thermometer into the liver, allow that
temperature to stabilize. Take that temperature, remove that thermometer and
take another ambient reading. So I've got those readings bracketed.
And there are various nomogram you can use to back out the time of death or
bracket in time of death. Roughly, a human body cools in Louisiana at about 1
to 1 1/2 degrees per hour. That's extremely a thumbnail-type sketch or
response, and there are some nomogram you can utilize. But that's--in order
to rule in or rule out a time bracket will certainly come into play when
somebody--when a suspect has an alibi, or doesn't have an alibi for a certain
time. So that's something I always keep with me.
I always keep an alternate light source so we can turn out the lights and just
look through an orange-type shield. As an alternate light source, it puts out
a kind of a blue glow. And we're looking for things like semen or any type of
stain that might be on the body or in the area. So that's something else I
certainly always keep in that kit.
I always keep in there any appliance I might need such as to get into a locked
facility or something. Of course, I always have some snips so that I can snip
through a lock if I have to, but usually the police are far ahead of me on
that so I never had to worry about things like that.
And in Louisiana now--as a matter of fact it's legislature that we've pushed
forward--the coroner is allowed to be armed. And of course that was something
that I adhered to.
GROSS: OK. So you carry arms. What do you carry? A gun?
Dr. CATALDIE: Yeah. We get into some pretty heavy situations at times and I
was--yes. I've always been armed.
GROSS: Have you ever had to use the gun?
Dr. CATALDIE: Thank God, I've never had to use my gun on any person.
GROSS: You know, one of the things you have to do as a coroner or a medical
examiner is determine the time of death. And one of the tools you have for
that, when a body is already decomposing, is examining the maggots. I found
this fascinating. Could you talk about how you do that?
Dr. CATALDIE: Well, luckily for me, early on in my career I met Dr. Lamar
Meek, who unfortunately has passed on, but he was really a great guy, a great
teacher. And he taught me a whole lot about that. When a body dies, usually
at first light--it's not going to happen at night--a blow fly is there to lay
her eggs. And she can find that body almost within minutes. And so
with--even within minutes, if it's during the daylight, in all probability the
fly's there and the fly's laying the eggs.
So the eggs go through a normal process of going to maturity, and there are
different stages of maggots. And those stages of maggots can tell you
within--again within adequate time brackets as to how long they've been there.
For instance, if it takes eight hours to reach a certain stage, by definition
you collect the maggots, you raise the maggots, you make sure that's the type
of blow fly that you think it was, and you can back out their ti--their life
cycles. And this has been extremely beneficial, because as they continue to
go through various stages they also go through migration, in which they'll
actually burrow underground and migrate away from the body. I'll never forget
the first time that Dr. Meek ground up a bunch of dirt and grass roots about
two feet from the body that was full of maggots to show me that the migration
patterns were there.
So those migration patterns at that level of maturity. And you'll see people
all over the body gathering up the flies with a net to ascertain what type of
fly is laying the egg.
And you have to balance the--back off about the temperature. Is the--are the
remains in the shade? How long have they been in the shade? Was it a cloudy
day? Was it a wet day? And those are all things that the experts do to come
back to us and say, `Here, we can give you an approximate date of death,' and
things like that. Which, again, is very beneficial.
GROSS: Did it take you a while before you could take this empirical attitude
toward the maggots? Did it take you a while of not being overcome by feeling
sick, seeing them?
Dr. CATALDIE: You know, the first time I saw those maggots was in a
prostitute who had been killed--and there's a possibility she is related to a
serial killing. I don't know that, but the index of suspicion is there--early
on in my career. To see that type of activity initially--it backs you up a
bit, it certainly did me. But what you do, of course, is that you have to
realize that that's evidence there, and you just do what you need to do, I
mean, you know, get over it and get what you need to do, compartmentalize
And in this particular situation, the maggots had accumulated, as they do, on
most orifices, but also at a wound site, which is quite commonly what they
will do. And if a person--let's say a person has been stabbed to death, or
they've been shot in the chest. Quite often in addition to other areas where
maggots will accumulate, maggots will also accumulate at the site of the
trauma. So that's a clue right off the bat that this is a place to look. And
of course, you can also extrapolate from the maggots, if you will. You can
make a maggot slurry and do drug screens and subsequently see if there were
drugs present on the human who--on which the maggots were feeding.
GROSS: My guest is Dr. Louis Cataldie. He's the Louisiana state medical
examiner overseeing the identification of the dead after Hurricane Katrina.
He's the former coroner of East Baton Rouge Parish and now he's the author of
the new book "Coroner's Journal: Stalking Death in Louisiana."
If this isn't too personal, has working with dead bodies affected your sense
of what, if anything, happens to us after death?
Dr. CATALDIE: Well--what if anything happens to us after death? You know,
my belief is that it does. And my belief that--is that there's evil and good
in this world, and I, you know, I think--my personal feeling is ultimately we
will be judged by what we do. So, I think there is. I think people live on
after death for lots of reasons and lots of ways. Certainly we live on in the
memories of our loved ones. I can certainly tell you that from the folks
who--the families of the victims of Derrick Todd Lee, that these people live
on forever and from generation to generation. And I believe that there's
innate good in people and I believe that there's evil in people, and I just
hope we try to stay on the right side of that.
GROSS: You have a son, and you write something very funny in your book about
him. You say, "How many 11-year-olds go tracking across the shopping mall to
describe the splatter pattern of a leaky garbage can that's been moved across
the floor?" So obviously your son has learned a little--a few of the tricks of
Dr. CATALDIE: Yeah. When he did that I was somewhat startled. That's one
of the reasons I said maybe I should journal all this, at least from my
perspective of it.
GROSS: But there's probably a lot you want to protect your son from? I mean,
there's probably a lot you want to teach him and a lot that you really don't
want him to know.
Dr. CATALDIE: Well, I think it is good to know things, but you don't
necessarily have to experience them themselves. I think it's good to be able
to learn from others--certainly a failing of mine throughout my youth and I'm
sure one that we all suffer from to some level. But, also, I think it's
impossible for someone you live with, especially someone as impressionable as
a child, it's impossible for me to have done what I have done and not bring
some of it home. He has seen me on TV escorting dead bodies; he knows what's
going on. And I was somewhat shocked at some of the things he had picked up
just by being around me--the garbage can being one--and talking about trace
evidence and things like that, you know, when popcorn is on your shirt from
the movie. I mean, just little things like that kind of clue you. I don't
want a mini Monk on my hands.
GROSS: We're recording this interview in the morning. What happens to the
rest of the day now? Are you going back to the morgue? And what work is in
store for you today?
Dr. CATALDIE: Actually, today I'll be traveling to the Ninth Ward again.
I'll also be visiting with Dr. Minyard. As you may or may not know we have
several casketed remains in a warehouse in New Orleans. Then I'll go to the
Ninth Ward and I'll check on the dog teams to make sure we are supporting them
in any way the state needs to support those folks. New Orleans Fire
Department is doing a tremendous job down there.
GROSS: These are the recovery dogs you're talking about, who are looking for
Dr. CATALDIE: Yes, it is. That is correct. Cadaver dogs.
GROSS: Cadaver dogs.
Dr. CATALDIE: Yes. And from there I'll be going to Metairie Cemetery to do
a survey on the damage down there with the folks out of Washington, DC. And
then from there I'll be preparing to do a presentation at Delgado College
tomorrow on how embalmers and morticians can help in preparedness for mass
disasters. Otherwise I don't have much left for the day.
GROSS: Well, listen I really want to thank you so much for describing the
work that you've been doing. I really appreciate it. Thank you, and good
luck to you.
Dr. CATALDIE: Thank you.
GROSS: Dr. Louis Cataldie is the Louisiana state medical examiner and author
of the new memoir, "Coroner's Journal." He spoke to us from WRFK in Baton
Rouge. You can find an excerpt of his memoir on our Web site,
Coming up, we talk with two high school teachers in New Orleans who are trying
to help their students keep up with their studies in spite of the disorder
around them. This is FRESH AIR.
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Interview: Colleen Fiegel and Dr. Cathy Hightower discuss teaching
in Ben Franklin High School in New Orleans
TERRY GROSS, host:
My guests are teachers in one of the few high schools that have reopened in
New Orleans. They're trying to help their students focus on their studies,
even though they're still surrounded by destruction of Katrina. Colleen
Fiegel teaches biology to ninth- and tenth-graders. Dr. Cathy Hightower
teaches English to tenth- and eleventh-graders. They teach at Benjamin
Franklin High, a school with an excellent academic record. It's located on
the University of New Orleans campus and is only a couple of blocks away from
one of the levee breaks. It recently became a charter school to facilitate
reopening at a time when many public schools remain closed.
Of the schools' 935 students, 540 have returned. Less than 50 percent of them
are displaced, living in FEMA trailers or other accommodations. Some are
commuting long distances to attend the school. Franklin's principal and
football coach led the way in getting the flooded school back in shape to
reopen. Many of the teachers and parents helped with the cleanup.
Colleen Fiegel you were at the high school before it opened, helping to clean.
Can you talk a little bit about what that was like?
Ms. COLLEEN FIEGEL: Well, the first thing I think of is the first time that
I came in, I actually brought the camera and took pictures for the insurance
company and for FEMA. So I got to see everything, and I was in tears. It was
just amazing to me to see the devastation. And when you walk into our front
foyer, we have a statue of Ben Franklin in the front foyer, and he was
basically covered with mold and muddy water. We had about a foot and a half
of water in the building throughout. And what went through my mind was, `My
God, how are we going to clean this up? But we've got to do it because we
want to come back.'
And immediately we started asking for volunteers on the Web portal. And we
had--every weekend we had parents, we had students, we had friends. And it
was so enlightening to see the support that we had from everybody. And that
is what I think got us through all of this, because there s no way that we
could have done this without all that support.
GROSS: What condition is the school in now? Would you describe it for us?
Dr. CATHY HIGHTOWER: The condition of the school. The second and third
floors maintained little damage. One classroom had a window blown out. On
January the 3rd, when we came back, we, as a faculty, made sure that those two
floors were cl--and the classrooms on those two floors--were cleaned,
organized. That sounds like a simple task. It was monumental, because the
weeks before, literally the volunteers that were still in the city or driving
in from outlying areas were taking everything that could be salvaged off the
first floor and placing it in classrooms on the second floor and not bothering
necessarily to clean, dust, dispose of--except if something was really
destroyed than obviously they didn't move it, they just disposed of it.
But, so we are now on the second and third floors and they're beautiful. It's
ongoing renovation of the school. It was exciting today. The kids actually
didn't have to report to the gym to eat lunch, to have their lunch
distributed. They actually went to the cafeteria. And that's one of the
things that here in New Orleans we get excited over the most trivial things.
So eating in the cafeteria today, the kids were like, `What!' and their first
concern was, `Can we still buy soft drinks?'
GROSS: Do you feel like in your curricula now that you have to somehow bring
in the hurricane, bring in the flood, bring in the reality of your students'
lives now so that what they're learning doesn't seem far removed from the
reality of their lives which have been overturned?
Ms. FIEGEL: We have often talked about the changes in the population around
here. We were talking about, in a unit on plants, how when you look around
our neighborhood, the plants are all dead. And why are the plants dead? We
have Lake Pontchartrain, which actually is brackish water that has flooded the
area, and the only few things that are still living are the weeds that are
popping up now, and things like live oak trees and bald Cyprus trees, so we're
able to talk about, you know, `Why did these live and everything else has
died?' So, I think it's been a good learning experience as a whole, as to
changes in climate, changes in populations, things that are relevant in
biology as far as from an ecological standpoint as well.
GROSS: Cathy Hightower, you're an English teacher. What books are you
Dr. HIGHTOWER: We're just finishing "Brave New World" with the
ninth-graders, and that's been an interesting study just in the current ways
that our culture has gone, and kind of--it was written in 1932, but there are
ways in which those things have come true. We're doing more with some of the
non-fiction pieces. And we used Chris Rose, the columnist who wrote a lot
about Katrina. We also are doing a variety of short stories. And all the way
through all of those studies, whether it's a short story, a play--we're doing
"Streetcar Named Desire"--we tried to include as much New Orleans literature
as we could to try to give kids a way to resonate with the return to the city.
GROSS: Are your students able to work? I mean, do they have they tools that
they need? Do they have electricity where they're staying? Do you have
enough electricity in the schools? Do you have computers? Were the books
saved from the flood?
Ms. FIEGEL: We had--many of our students, the ones who lost their homes, the
ones who flooded, but just have damage to their homes, some of them lost their
text books. We have been able--since we didn't have all of our students
back--some of the books that were there for those students we were able to use
and redistribute. All of our students have text books. All of our students
have school supplies that they need. We've been very lucky, and we've had
people from around the country--schools, individuals--that have sent boxes of
school supplies for our students. So we have a whole room full of binders and
pencils and pens and notebooks. So we--and we made that very evident to
everyone when they came back. `Don't go out and try and buy things. We have
basically whatever you need.'
GROSS: What's the neighborhood around the school like now?
Ms. FIEGEL: Most of the houses are vacant, some are already demolished, some
are gutted. You see a few FEMA trailers around where people have come back.
So it's not the best of times in this area, and our students have to drive
through that every day.
GROSS: What do you see on the drive?
Dr. HIGHTOWER: As I said earlier--one of the things that I see on my drive
home frequently is the dust, the debris, the remnants of trashed lives,
basically. And then there are literally men in hazmat suits shovelling--with
complete masks--shovelling the remnants into trucks. It's unsettling both to
me as a teacher and students to see that, because you know you're driving
through that every day.
GROSS: My guests are Colleen Fiegel and Cathy Hightower, teachers at Benjamin
Franklin High in New Orleans. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH
GROSS: My guests are two teachers from Benjamin Franklin High School in New
Orleans which was flooded after Katrina and reopened January 3rd. Colleen
Fiegel teaches biology, Cathy Hightower teaches English.
Well, what about your lives? When did--did you evacuate during the hurricane,
and have you moved back into your homes?
Ms. FIEGEL: I was very lucky. I live in the Jefferson area and I had, you
know, minimal damage compared to most. I did evacuate with all of my animals
and my 84-year-old mother, and we were gone for a month. It was a very
stressful time, not knowing what I was going to come back to because I didn't
know that I didn't have damage. One of the other teachers at school lost her
entire house and has now moved in with me because she has no place to live.
So it's definitely been very different since the hurricane.
GROSS: Cathy Hightower, what about you?
Dr. HIGHTOWER: I evacuated with my family, our Australian shepherd, and my
husband's mother. We were gone for two months. I guess the biggest trauma
for us--I have a daughter who has a--and I have a grandson. They went to
Houston. My son actually stayed in New Orleans. He works for the Times
Picayune newspaper, and there were four days when I wasn't sure what his
status was because cell phones weren't working, the Internet was down. I just
remember the last phone call was, You know, `Mom, it may be a couple of days
before you hear from me. But don't worry. I'm going to be OK.' So that was
really a very scary time for us.
We came back two months afterwards. Our house took six feet of water. Three
weeks after the storm we were able to get back into the city, and we literally
spent a week with shovels digging out everything on our first floor. My
husband's a preacher, I'm a teacher. All my work on my dissertation, all my
school stuff, all my husband's--he's also a psychologist--all of his papers.
I mean, literally--papers, books, treasures--for a solid week we literally dug
through that, and it had all become mush. So we had to just literally put it
in wheelbarrows and haul it to the median on our street.
But now, we actually got back in the second floor of our house right before
Christmas, and as I was telling Colleen yesterday, we're still working on the
first floor, but we actually--everything has been dead in our
neighborhood--but our yard was put back yesterday. We actually have green
grass, and flowers, and bushes.
GROSS: Is your first floor--which you're not living in now, and which you
shovelled everything out of--is that all moldy and are you worried about mold
Dr. HIGHTOWER: We actually--since we gutted it about a month after the storm
happened and had every treatment available known to science used, from
Microban to the borax to whatever--and then my husband and I, and then we had
volunteers that helped us as well--we've scrubbed it with bleach, we've bought
different airing machines, you know, humidifiers, whatever. So--the whole
thing is--at least at our house, you no longer smell the swamp water smell.
And one of the things that's been somewhat--I mean it may not be traumatic to
anyone else at school--but there's a hallway we all have to walk through to
get into that main part of the building that's the old weight room, and up
until recently that same swamp water smell was there. So every day that
recall--and they talk about, they talk about the memory of pain--well, the
memory of that smell is imprinted in my brain. So I'm so thrilled that that
is starting to dissipate now. That may sound minor, but for those of us who
have had to--we recognize that not just as an odor anymore, it's just--it's
the memory of what all that means in terms of what--everything that was lost.
And I know I'm not the only one, because anybody in town, you just say that,
and people automatically know.
One of the things that this experience taught me is that, I used to have to
have a lot of resources--a lot of papers, a lot of handouts, a lot of things
to enhance what I was doing. I've taught for almost 35 years. I had a
basement filled with notebooks of lesson plans and teaching ideas and student
samples and all these kinds of things. And of course, that was all gone. But
it's been interesting for me, just to start brand-new, fresh. And I have
decided that if I can't get it on the Internet--when I have electricity--that
I don't need to keep all that stuff any more, that the accouterments of
teaching are not as important as the relationship between students and
teachers. And I know--I've known that all along, but I always wanted those
little special things that were the memories of that. And so--that's all gone
now. So I'm trying to make a commitment not to collect as much paper because
it is so heavy when it is wet. I just don't ever want to have to dig out a
bunch of books and papers again.
GROSS: I understand it took awhile, several weeks, before teachers were paid
after your school reopened. How long did you work without pay, and how did
you feel about having to do that?
Ms. FIEGEL: I think all of us were so happy to be at Franklin and we all
have a sense of trust in our administration, in our staff, that we knew
eventually we were going to get paid. So I don't think we all really worried
about it because--I mean, we all worried because we had to pay bills and we
were all on unemployment, but I think overall we were just so happy to be
back. We knew it was going to come, you know, eventually.
GROSS: Did you ever think twice about returning to your school to teach?
Ms. FIEGEL: Think twice about it?
Ms. FIEGEL: No way.
Dr. HIGHTOWER: No way.
Ms. FIEGEL: The only thing I was worried about was it wouldn't be there.
Dr. HIGHTOWER: In fact, I--there was a job opportunity for a short term sub
across the lake, in St. Tammany, and they needed an AP teacher, but I went
there with the clear understanding, `As soon as Franklin goes back, I'm gone.'
Ms. FIEGEL: I was actually offered a job in Baton Rouge two days before we
were coming back and I said, `There's no way. I'm going back to my school.'
Dr. HIGHTOWER: Oh, and another thing. When I taught at that other school, I
never wore their ID. I always wore my Franklin ID.
GROSS: Well, I wish good luck to you, your students and your school. Thank
you very much for talking with us.
Dr. HIGHTOWER: Thank you.
Ms. FIEGEL: Thank you.
GROSS: Colleen Fiegel and Cathy Hightower teach at Benjamin Franklin High
School in New Orleans.
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Sign-off: Fresh Air
TERRY GROSS, host:
On the next FRESH AIR we talk with Aaron Eckhart. He stars in the new film
"Thank You for Smoking," a satire in which he plays a tobacco lobbyist who's
known as the "sultan of spin."
I'm Terry Gross. Join us for the next FRESH AIR.
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