Woman's death still haunts New Orleans neighborhood

AP News
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Posted: Aug 19, 2015 8:23 PM
Woman's death still haunts New Orleans neighborhood

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Amid the chaos after Hurricane Katrina swamped New Orleans, Vera Smith's body decayed for four days on a sidewalk until her horrified neighbors covered her with dirt, a makeshift plastic shroud and a bleak epitaph: "Here lies Vera. God help us."

Broadcast to the world, the stark image came to stand for what seemed like the complete breakdown of a great American city.

Although her cremated remains were later buried on a family plot in Texas and the place where she died of unknown causes has sprung back since Katrina, Vera Smith remains part of her neighborhood.

A colorful memorial by local artist Simon Hardeveld stands beside an upscale restaurant built near the site of her death, and her all-too-public demise was recounted in a book written by a man who helped erect her temporary sidewalk tomb.

Ten years later, friends — as well as neighbors who never even met Elvira Briones Smith, her full name — sense that she could have been any of them, a tragic victim of a natural disaster compounded by human mistakes.

"Vera is still being remembered every day. Even those of us who didn't know her think of her as a symbol of the quiet suffering people endured," said Yvette Rutledge, whose shop, Mystic Blue Signs, is around the corner from where Smith died.

Artist Maggie McEleney, who assisted with Smith's roadside burial, had a flashback recently after the death of a kitten.

Burying the little creature overwhelmed her senses.

"It was because of that thing that happened back then," said McEleney, referring to Smith's demise and gruesome public display obliquely, in the most distant of terms.

Wealth and poverty live side by side in New Orleans, and Smith lived somewhere in between. Her old neighborhood has undergone a rebirth since the storm, with trendy new businesses, residential renovations and new housing, but back then it was rundown and plagued by crime.

Born in Mexico, Smith grew up in Texas and moved to New Orleans as a young woman decades before Katrina. Four marriages produced two daughters, now grown. For her final 15 or so years, Smith shared a small duplex with common-law husband C.N. Keene and their dogs. Their home was on Philip Street, just a few blocks from the columned mansions of St. Charles Avenue and a rough housing project that was demolished after the hurricane.

For years, her two daughters said, Smith helped operate a restaurant and bars even as she struggled with alcohol. A true New Orleans character, she loved fancy clothes and costume jewelry and had a wig for each day of the week.

"She never had the same hair color two days in a row," said daughter Cindy Briones, 57. "You always knew when she was coming."

Neighbors knew Smith as a quirky, boisterous woman who could be jolly and friendly. She also could be obnoxiously loud if she had been drinking, which they say happened often.

"She wasn't living a pristine life and she didn't care if you knew it," said Jewel Carbone, who was once married to Smith's second husband.

While thousands evacuated New Orleans as Katrina bore down on the city, Smith and Keene stayed. Sometime after the hurricane made landfall on Aug. 29, 2005, Smith walked outside and headed around the corner toward a store where she often bought food, cigarettes and beer.

Keene never saw Vera alive again; he was told she had been killed by a vehicle that struck her in the aftermath of the storm and sped away. Neighbors still believe she was struck by a car, but an autopsy report obtained by The Associated Press last week showed she had no injuries to indicate any sort of accident. The report doesn't list a cause of death, and the manner was undetermined. Her death remains a mystery.

In an interview with the AP shortly after her death, Keene — who died himself in 2007 — said he put a bedspread over his companion's body on the sidewalk and left it, feeling there was nothing else he could do.

A few days later, he was sitting on his porch when a man came up to him with news.

"Some guy I didn't even know named John came by and said, 'I've just buried Elvira in the park,'" Keene said.

That man was John R. Lee, who lived nearby. Riding his bike four days after Katrina, Lee was sickened to see her decaying remains lying on the curb in 90-degree heat.

"I couldn't believe it. Aside from being a health hazard, it was just such an indignity to the body," he said.

Much of the city was underwater because of levee failures, but Smith's resting place on the sidewalk was dry. So Lee grabbed a shovel the next morning and began covering her remains with dirt from a small, nearby park. A handful of others saw what he was doing and joined in, he said.

Lee and others draped the mound of dirt with thick white plastic and outlined the makeshift grave with bricks. It was Maggie McEleney, Lee said, who painted the words on the shroud that touched the world.

Images of the forlorn shrine were published worldwide.

Only then did Smith's relatives learn of her fate.

Daughter Jeannette Diver of Flint, Michigan, recalls her mom having parties during some previous hurricanes, and she suspects Smith thought she and Keene could survive Katrina, too. Diver said she tried calling her mother the day after the storm made landfall. When she couldn't reach her, she knew something was wrong.

"I haven't stopped mourning," she said. "It's like it happened yesterday."

The hurt was compounded by the fact that some people assumed Smith was homeless and unloved because her remains stayed in the street so long, when nothing could be further from the truth, Diver said.

"She was loved by many. She owned restaurants and bars and she raised me," Diver said. "She's not haunting that corner. Her spirit is here with me."

Briones, Smith's other daughter, said losing Miss Vera sent Keene into a depression from which he never recovered. After he died, Smith's close friend and landlord, Leona Gray, soon passed away as well.

"Mama used to cook for her, clean for her, just do everything. She really took care of both of them," Briones said. "(Her death) just took them both."

John Lee remained troubled by nightmares and insomnia. In 2006, to help exorcise his own demons, he wrote and self-published a book called "Our Sleepless Nights: Surviving Katrina and Burying Miss Vera."

"It was a cathartic release to chase away the nightmares," he said.

Lee, who has an educational software business, said writing the book helped "a lot," yet he still gets emotional recounting his Katrina experiences and the decision to leave nine days after the storm. As he described the hell of the hurricane during a recent interview, he burst into tears.

McEleney processed her trauma through her art. In the months after Katrina, her paintings depicted the vicious winds that ripped apart homes and the floodwaters that swamped her town.

She now lives across the Mississippi River from her old neighborhood, and she doesn't think about Katrina or Miss Vera as much as she once did. Yet she still wonders how a major American city let a decaying body remain on a sidewalk for so long.

"It was just inexplicable how that could happen," she said.

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Associated Press news researcher Barbara Sambriski in New York City contributed to this report.