As soon as their flat-bottomed boat turned the street corner, the three men saw the body. Still there.
Floating face down in 4 feet of putrid water and trash, bloated from a week of punishing sun, the man who died in his white T-shirt and underwear was tethered to a flooded house, just as the men had left him days earlier.
It was all they could do for now. So they kept on their mission, going from house to house here in the middle of the submerged city, bringing food, water and medical supplies to the living and trying to tend to the dead.
They call themselves the Soul Patrol.
“This is our neighborhood,” Earl Barthe Jr. said from the boat. “We’re gonna take care of it.”
The patrol is a small part of an enormous, difficult effort that continued Tuesday across New Orleans to recover the dead from Hurricane Katrina, to persuade survivors still there to leave and to aid those refusing to go.
The three men in the boat are not trained rescue workers — just middle-age guys and longtime friends who have lived in the humble neighborhood all their lives. Almost everything they are giving to the few people still left in the area they are getting from professional rescue crews that appreciate the hand they are lending.
It is a dangerous work. They are cruising through water filled with so much gunk and slime that it’s hard to see the cars sunken just below the surface. Downed trees and power lines obstruct some of the watery streets on their route.
In the first harrowing days after the hurricane hit, they ferried many victims to dry ground: scared women who were afraid the little boat would tip, elderly people who were running out of medicine, a priest who needed to flee his deluged rectory. One woman told the trio she wanted to die in her house, but they persuaded her to leave.
When water first broke through the levee and formed currents in the streets, Barthe was paddling a small boat and saw a boy about 12 years old get swept away. Struggling against the current himself, he couldn’t aid the boy.
“I couldn’t do anything to help,” Barthe said softly, his head bowed.
On their rounds now, they are assisting others they couldn’t save by tying floating bodies to utility poles, fences or street signs. They say they are doing whatever they can to help authorities find bodies in the hope of giving loved ones answers about those lost in the massive flooding.
‘A total loss’
The hum of their boat motor is the only sound of civilization in the neighborhood. They float past their old high school, now submerged. Past pink and yellow and green cottages with Mardi Gras beads still draped on their fences. Past hungry dogs stranded on porches, some too lifeless to bark when the boat passes by.
“It’s a total loss around down here,” Ricky Mathieu, 49, said as he steered. “Everything.”
A corner market they pass has a large hole chopped into its side, a space where people carried out its goods after the hurricane.
“It wasn’t no looting,” Mathieu said sternly. “They had to eat. They had to survive.”
Barthe, Mathieu and Jadell Beard turned another corner and shouted to people inside what’s known in the city as a “shotgun” house, small and narrow. The men inside came out to the porch and waved. A speedboat was moored to a column on the sunken steps.
They’re OK, they said, as good as someone living there can be. A few blocks later, they floated past a friend’s house that exploded after the flood, likely from a gas explosion. A flame still burns atop the water, bubbling gas feeding it from below.
A few more blocks, and they saw another body. This time, a dead man in khaki pants was lying face up just above the water line on the grassy median that locals here call the neutral ground. He was tied to a concrete pole.
The smell of death fills the neighborhood. The three estimate that they have tied up about 20 bodies to keep them in place. By the time most were found, they weren’t recognizable. “We can’t really tell who they are, they’re so big,” Barthe said.
They guess there are plenty more they haven’t seen. “They’ve got a lot of dead people in the attics,” Mathieu said. “They’re going to find them.”
They continued their patrol without showing emotion.
Reasons to stay
On the way out of the neighborhood, the group stopped by the house of a woman they call “Momma D.” Dyan French Cole, 60, said she didn’t leave because it was her home and she needed to stay there with her 84-year-old blind mother.
“My momma wouldn’t have survived standing on that overpass,” she said, referring to an elevated highway where some refugees were taken and left for days. “We’re at home. We ain’t going to nobody else’s home.”
Cole said she is pouring bleach in the water around her house to try to keep it from smelling and getting contaminated. Stocked with vitamin drinks and other foods, she, her mother and a friend are getting along fine, she said.
The men are still living in the neighborhood, too, holed up in a makeshift camp atop the dry part of Mathieu’s house. A generator is powering their television and other appliances, their pantries are full, and they jump in their boat to get what they don’t receive from rescue workers.
Leaving, they said, and living in a shelter with few belongings and no control over their lives is not appealing. It would start to feel like a prison, they said. That’s why they keep patrolling and bringing supplies to neighbors.
“We’re out here to protect our neighbors’ houses and to look out for them,” Mathieu said.
Added Barthe: “We’re the ones who are gonna build it back.”
Pam Louwagie • 612-673-7102