Back from the Dead

Dan Frosch/Santa Fe Reporter

Major Daniel Lopez and other New Mexico state policeman have just returned home from Louisiana, after spending time on patrols in New Orleans.

Santa Fe Reporter | September 28, 2005
“It’s not like we don’t see dead bodies all the time,” New Mexico State Police Agent Jay Blakeney says matter-of-factly, a tinge of a southern Louisiana accent betraying his birthplace. “It’s just that we’re not used to seeing bodies that have been floating in houses for days in weird positions like that.”

For the past three weeks, Blakeney—who works out of Socorro but is a Louisiana native—was in New Orleans with 20 other New Mexico State Police officers, finishing up a near three-week tour of duty to help pick up the proverbial pieces of a city ripped wide open by Hurricane Katrina [Cover Story, Sept. 14: “Things Fall Apart”].

Led by Major Daniel Lopez, who helps run the State Police’s Criminal Investigations division out of Santa Fe, the team saw Katrina’s ravages up close—from rotting corpses, to wind-twisted homes, to streets of brackish water, to desperate locals terrified at the thought of leaving their beloved homes.

“I’m not sure whether it was life-changing or not,” Blakeney, who was raised in Shreveport and New Orleans before moving to New Mexico, says. “But we definitely felt like we were part of history. We knew this was a place which needed long-term help.”

Help was exactly what the Louisiana State Police asked for during those first few days following Katrina, when chaos seemed to have usurped any last vestiges of law and order in the city streets. At Louisiana police officials’ request, the New Mexico contingent, whose 21 officers were culled by State Police Chief Carlos Maldonado, took 12 police units and sped toward New Orleans from Santa Fe on Sept. 4.

After setting up camp on the grounds of the Louisiana State Police Headquarters in Baton Rouge a day later, the New Mexico team began convoying some 80 miles into New Orleans every day where it would rendezvous with other police agencies from around the country for a variety of missions.

The first week, the New Mexico team was primarily involved in helping National Guard and local law enforcement evacuate the last remaining residents hiding in their homes around the now infamous New Orleans Convention Center.

On Sept. 14, their orders changed. Now the New Mexico cops were charged with the macabre mission of providing security for body recovery teams from the Federal Emergency Agency (FEMA) and its private subcontractor Kenyon International in New Orleans’s Ninth Ward neighborhood, thought to have suffered even worse than the rest of the city.

“I have a hard time wrapping words around the devastation we saw,” Lopez says. “I was able to take an aerial view of the area, and it made me realize that even from the ground you get can’t a sense of how hard these neighborhoods were hit.”

Accompanied by seven to 10 FEMA or Kenyon workers, one or two New Mexico State Police would secure a house, locate the body and call the medical teams in.

Unlike the crime scenes they were used to—where bodies were most often found shot, stabbed and the like—the State Police stumbled upon corpses which had been submerged in floodwater for days on end. Now that the water had receded, the bodies were contorted in bizarre positions on the floors of their own homes.

“Most of the bodies we saw were 50 or older, people who’d tried to wait the hurricane out,” Blakeney—who, along with his partner Agent Nathan Lucero, helped recover 15 bodies between them—says. “Emotionally it wasn’t hard because we’re used to seeing bodies. It was just the conditions—the heat, the water, the hurricane—which made this different.”

Though New Orleans was largely secure by this point, at every corner the New Mexico team was reminded of the pandemonium the city had known just a short time earlier. At one point, on Sept 17, two State Police officers found and arrested a suspected looter. The looter happened to be a New Orleans firefighter, according to the log kept by Lopez.

Finally, on Sept. 22, the team headed back to Santa Fe, to be replaced by a second group of 20 New Mexico State Police officers, scheduled to stay until Oct. 19, at which time a third team will ship out for Louisiana.

“We’ve been asked to do this for up to 90 days,” New Mexico Department of Public Safety Spokesman Peter Olson says. “It’s putting a strain on things back home, but this is really important work. The guys that stay are willing to pick up the slack, the guys that go really want to go.”

Says Lopez of his time in Louisiana: “Bad things happen, and they’ll happen in New Mexico. Maybe not on that scale but they will. I hope people can take comfort in the fact that there are still people who you can get behind when those bad things occur. I, for one, am really proud of the work my guys did.”

Santa Fe Reporter

When it was founded in 1974, the Santa Fe Reporter's mission was to create lively competition for a stodgy and timid daily press. That tradition continues today. The Reporter investigates beneath the surface, presenting in-depth stories often overlooked or uninvestigated...
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