Arkansas National Guardsman Mikel Brooks stepped through the food service entrance of the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center Monday, flipped on the light at the end of his machine gun, and started pointing out bodies.
“Don’t step in that blood—it’s contaminated,” he said. “That one with his arm sticking up in the air, he’s an old man.”
Then he shined the light on the smaller human figure under the white sheet next to the elderly man.
“That’s a kid,” he said. “There’s another one in the freezer, a 7-year-old with her throat cut.”
He moved on, walking quickly through the darkness, pulling his camouflage shirt to his face to screen out the overwhelming odor.
“There’s an old woman,” he said, pointing to a wheelchair covered by a sheet. “I escorted her in myself. And that old man got bludgeoned to death,” he said of the body lying on the floor next to the wheelchair.
Brooks and several other Guardsmen said they had seen between 30 and 40 more bodies in the Convention Center’s freezer. “It’s not on, but at least you can shut the door,” said fellow Guardsman Phillip Thompson.
The scene of rotting bodies inside the Convention Center reflected those in thousands of businesses, schools, homes and shelters across the metropolitan area. The official death count from Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana was 71 as of Monday evening, but that included only those bodies that had been brought to a make-shift morgue in St. Gabriel.
Of the four bodies that lay just inside the food service entrance of the Convention Center, the woman in the wheelchair rattled Brooks the most. When he found her two days before among the sea of suffering in front of the Convention Center where one of the last refugee camps evacuated, her husband sat next to her. He had only one concern when Brooks and some of his comrades carted her away.
“Bring me back my wheelchair,” he recalled the man telling him.
One of the bodies, they said, was a girl they estimated to be 5 years old. Though they could not confirm it, they had heard she was gang-raped.
“There was an old lady that said the little girl had been raped by two or three guys, and that she had told another unit. But they said they couldn’t do anything about it with all the people there,” Brooks said. “I would have put him in cuffs, stuck him in the freezer and left him there.”
Brooks and his unit came to New Orleans not long after serving a year of combat duty in Iraq, taking on gunfire and bombs, while losing comrades with regularity. Still, the scene at the Convention Center, where they conducted an evacuation this week, left him shell-shocked.
“I ain’t got the stomach for it, even after what I saw in Iraq,” said Brooks, referring to the freezer where the bulk of the bodies sat decomposing. “In Iraq, it’s one-on-one. It’s war. It’s fair. Here, it’s just crazy. It’s anarchy. When you get down to killing and raping people in the streets for food and water . . . And this is America. This is just 300 miles south of where I live.”