In St. Gabriel, grim business sets up shop

By Nicholas Spangler: Knight Ridder Newspapers

ST. GABRIEL, La. — The dead are rolling into town. The first sign of this was the convoy of 18-wheelers that rumbled into the parking lot behind the Highway 30 Truck Plaza one day last week, driven by truckers forbidden to discuss their cargo or destination.

There were 40, 9, 25 trucks: accounts vary. But all had refrigeration units. “We don’t have refrigeration business around here,” said Tommy Lyons, the manager of the truck stop’s garage. “All our business is chemicals, so we noticed that.”

They had noticed too, when the Federal Emergency Management Agency rented the giant TT&H Warehouse at the end of Iberville Street, next to town hall. Eventually, 70 of those white refrigerated 18-wheelers parked next to the warehouse. By Wednesday, there were 393 bodies there, with room for 607 more.

Two hundred people moved into town virtually overnight to perform tasks associated with the contents of the refrigerator units that they won’t discuss. Black plastic was hung on the surrounding fence, and men with guns and T-shirts bearing acronyms set up a guard post to keep out everyone who doesn’t belong.

Even Mayor George Grace, who’s worked at town hall 11 years, has to show ID before he can get to town hall.

These things were noticed in this town of 5,000, which was largely undamaged by Katrina. The nearby Mississippi River never overflowed its banks.

St. Gabriel is near two state prisons and 13 giant chemical plants, at which most of the townspeople work. It’s surrounded by enough pastureland to belie the motto posted on signs here and there: “No matter where you are going, you can get there from St. Gabriel.” The town is most of the way from New Orleans toward Baton Rouge, but it’s 12 miles from any interstate.

Grace will tell you that the Acadians settled here centuries ago, after they were expelled from Nova Scotia, and that Carville, one of the nation’s first treatment centers for Hansen’s disease, or leprosy, is just down the road. This doesn’t seem to be a boast, only evidence of the town’s good will.

“This is not the first time we’ve tried to help,” Grace said the other day, after emerging from the black-sheeted morgue complex. “We felt this was a role we could play. We didn’t have the supplies, staff or, frankly, the money to serve as a shelter community. But this is something we could do.”

The mayor’s sympathy is genuine, but he knows that FEMA — and a trailer city of as many as 5,000 evacuees that may be on the way, along with federal aid money — could bring infrastructure improvements to his town.

There were questions but no objections at a town hall meeting last week about the morgue. Residents, many with family in New Orleans, seem proud that the morgue has come to their town.

At Berthelot’s, the restaurant in front of the truck stop — a strangely decorated place with mounted bucks and aerial photographs of chemical plants on the wall, and excellent catfish — Penny Banta, the manager, stepped out of the kitchen to say hello.

“I’m glad we doing it,” she said. “They got to go somewheres.”