Photographic memories of being a volunteer after Hurricane Katrina

by Richard L. Thornton, Architect & City Planner

It is probable that the people of Louisiana are about to be struck again by a catastrophic hurricane. This one is named Ida. I am showing you horrific photos from 2005, so the public will understand the true nature of an apocalyptic storm. Be fairly warned. Included are two photos of decayed human bodies.

For many years after volunteering to help the people of Louisiana immediately after Hurricane Katrina struck on August 29, 2005, I would periodically have nightmares that I was still in New Orleans. The penetrating smell of decaying flesh was everywhere and even clung to my clothing, when I returned to Georgia. I can’t imagine what it was like to be a resident of southern Louisiana, during and immediately after Katrina struck. I did not arrive the first time until two weeks after the storm hit. By that time, the Louisiana National Guard and active duty Coast Guard/Navy/Marine personnel were already working in the city. FEMA was finally on the scene, but it was military personnel, who were doing to most to help the survivors in their time of need.

My immediate motivation was sheer anger. Boss Hogg’s in Pickens County, GA, where I lived and several surrounding counties, had placed flyers on the windows of downtown shops in Jasper . . . advertising “Ethnic cleansing parties” and free barbecues to celebrate the destruction of New Orleans. These people literally partied as over 1,800 people died! Some barbecues even advertised speakers, who promised to tell people how they could become wealthy from the rebuilding of New Orleans for the White People, who would replace the pre-Katrina population.

My initial trip was sponsored by the Muscogee-Creek Nation, which wanted to provide as much assistance as possible for the Native American tribes, located where the damage was worst, south of New Orleans. I was given written credentials from the MCN and FEMA, but the Louisiana National Guard would not let me drive south of New Orleans. I had my two herd dogs, Rob Roy and Sheena with me, however. I was asked by the Guardsmen to use my dogs to find cadavers. The rotting corpses of humans and animals were causing all manner of dangerous diseases to spread through survivors.

I had to camp out on a sandy beach at the edge of Lake Pontchartrain. The National Guard gave me MRE’s (Meals Ready to Eat) and drinking water. I brought dog food with me, but Rob Roy and Sheena preferred getting handouts of MRE’s from the soldiers. LOL The nearest working gasoline pumps were about 38 miles away. All I could take of constantly finding and marking decomposing bodies was a little over three days. When my Ford Explorer became low in gasoline, I just kept on going after filling up the tank.

Susan Karlson in December 2005

About six weeks later, I volunteered for a American Institute of Architects program, involved with the design of the reconstruction of New Orleans. I was assigned the Bywater District. Susan the Blonde Secret Agent, the two dogs and I drove down to New Orleans after Christmas to study the Bywater District. We camped out on the beach at Lake Pontchartrain. There were virtually no hotel rooms available. Yes, this is the same Susan, who anointed me with “holy olive oil” in my pasture then I faked a fake affair with in the Shenandoah Valley during summer 1991.

Of the four beautiful women, who were my great loves of the 1990s, only mysterious Susan turned out to be a long term relationship. We had two children, but I never saw them. She only would tell me that they were being protected in a safe place, but would know who their father was and be proud of him.

The “holy olive oil” was an ancient Hebrew marriage ceremony. I am certain that Susan and I would be living together today, had she not disappeared in June 2006. She told me that she was going overseas and returning in June. She never returned. I always suspected that she was either a time traveler, an angel or an extraterrestrial. There was something about her that was just not of this Earth.

Not a whole lot had changed, other than now the nearest working gas pump was 32 miles away. Susan’s federal intelligence officer badge got us into the Mississippi River Delta, but by then most of the Native Americans there had be evacuated to other parts of the country.

I returned with my drawings in late February 2006. This was just in time for the grand reopening of a convenience store and gas pumps in Slidell, LA – only 24 miles from New Orleans. By then, great mounds of garbage were piled up in vacant lots and front yards. Still . . . very few traffic lights were working. I had gotten a glimpse of what happens when civilization ceases to exist.

Something very odd happened on the ride back home. Every time I passed an area light on Interstates 10 and 59 in Alabama, the light would turn off. I was even stopped by the Alabama Highway Patrol about this, but they could find nothing unusual in my car and had no explanation either.

Rob Roy and Sheena proved to be outstanding cadaver dogs, but that was not a very pleasant task on my part. I had to mark the corpse with a red flag, yellow tape and a mark on a map. The daily map was then given to a coordinator for human and animal remains retrieval.
I have no idea what a fully clothed child’s body was doing under this boat.
(right) My dogs found a human skeleton underneath this overturned car. Apparently, fish and crabs had eaten off the flesh.
Empty FEMA trailers near Downtown New Orleans on March 2, 2006. There were still thousands of homeless people in and around New Orleans, but instead of being given these trailers, those of “colored skin” were bussed to cities elsewhere in the nation. Metro Houston and Metro Atlanta got a lot of them. Many, if not most, never returned to New Orleans. That seemed to have been the plan all along. The Houma Indians told me that many of their tribal members never returned . . . so it was not just African-Americans, who were targeted by the Bush Administration.


  1. With a camera, it is hard to get across the scale of the devastation. I drove for 24 miles along Interstate 10 highway in East Metro New Orleans and observed pretty much 100% devastation . . . even multi-story, steel frame buildings were left with nothing but the steel frames and concrete floors.

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