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Woman's death still haunts New Orleans neighborhood

Here lies Vera: Woman's death still haunts New Orleans neighborhood a decade after Katrina

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 has recovered, 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 met Elvia Briones Smith, her full name -- sense that she could have been any of them, a 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.

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

Wealth and poverty live side by side in New Orleans; Smith lived somewhere in between. The rundown, crime-plagued neighborhood she knew has been reborn, with trendy new businesses, residential renovations and new housing.

Born in Mexico, Smith grew up in Texas and moved to New Orleans as a young woman. Four marriages produced two daughters, now grown. For her final 15 or so years, Smith shared a small home with common-law husband C.N. Keene and their dogs.

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.

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 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. However, 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.

In an interview with the AP shortly after her death, Keene -- who died 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 was dry. So Lee grabbed a shovel the next morning and began covering her remains with dirt from a nearby park. A few 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. Maggie McEleney painted the words on the forlorn shrine that 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.

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

The hurt was compounded by some people's assumption that Smith was homeless and unloved.

"She was loved by many. She owned restaurants and bars and she raised me," Diver said.

Briones, Smith's other daughter, said losing Miss Vera sent Keene into a depression from which he never recovered. Soon after he died, Smith's close friend and landlord, Leona Gray, 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, he wrote and self-published a book called "Our Sleepless Nights: Surviving Katrina and Burying Miss Vera."

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.


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

Updated : 2021-09-18 13:33 GMT+08:00