Katrina Anniversary: Revisiting Vera's Grave in New Orleans

Makeshift grave of abandoned woman became iconic image, but pain is still raw.

Aug. 25, 2010— -- Of all the horrifying images of Hurricane Katrina from five years ago, the makeshift grave of Vera Smith may endure as one of the most heart-wrenching.

Hundreds of New Orleanians died in the aftermath of the storm, and in the initial days of recovery, dozens of bodies were simply left in the streets, a sickening sight in an American city.

It was a few days after the storm at the corner of Magazine St. and Jackson Ave. that ABC News first met John Lee. The New Orleans resident had walked the streets of his neighborhood, taking it upon himself to bury a stranger, Vera Smith, whose body had been lying in the street for four days.

"Good old nuns told me, 'Bury the dead,'" Lee explained at the time, his voice cracking with emotion. "You need to go. Please, go," he told the camera.

The simple grave carried a powerful message for the country, spray-painted on the plastic covering: "Here Lies Vera - God Help Us."

Floodwaters set loose by Katrina forced tens of thousands from their homes. Some sought refuge and rescue on their own rooftops, while others crowded into the Superdome and the city's convention center, where conditions quickly turned deplorable.

Misery was everywhere, and relief was hard to find. There was little evidence early on of a federal response appropriate for this once-in-a-generation disaster.

A Small Memorial Stands, Five Years Later

Five years later, on that same street corner, a small shrine stands to Smith, who died when she was 65-years-old.

"They should have buried Vera with honor," John Lee recalled today at the site.

Lee still lives in New Orleans and works in education.

"It was just the most inhuman, degrading thing I ever..." he said, overcome by tears and unable to finish the sentence.

He learned Smith was a married mother of two who had a constant smile and meticulously maintained her garden.

To Lee, Vera's memorial is an emblem of the lingering grief and feeling of neglect that exist in New Orleans five years after Katrina.

"We were left down here. It was just neighbors helping neighbors, food, water, burying the dead," Lee said. "They abandoned us."

Friends Remember "Miss Vera"

Even as life has returned to normal in the city, the failures in the response to Katrina have forever changed the way governments prepare for disasters. But despite the strides made in recovery, the city can't fix the painful memories.

Janet Clouden was a close friend of Vera Smith, and she helped Lee bury Vera on that day. Like so many others, she moved out of New Orleans for good. She returned to visit this week for the first time since the storm.

"We will never forget you, Miss Vera," Clouden said in a prayer at the small memorial. "No matter how many storms, no matter how many years. We love you. Rest in peace, Miss Vera."

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