Ten years ago, psychiatrist Jeffrey Rouse was on a clear path toward academia. He spent most of his days hunkered down in a research lab, staring at MRI images of brains.
Then Hurricane Katrina upended his world.
The storm and its devastating aftermath set in motion a chain of events that would, less than a decade later, thrust the self-described “bookish nerd” into the very public role of coroner in a city that is consistently ranked as one of the deadliest in the country.
Prior to Katrina, while he was still working on his Ph.D., Rouse supplemented his family’s income with part-time work as a psychiatrist for the coroner’s office. In addition to determining the cause of suspicious or traumatic deaths, Louisiana coroners also handle involuntary psychiatric commitments—a quirk particular to his home state that Rouse admitted is “a little dark.”
Rouse’s part-time job came with an official badge from the coroner’s office. That proved useful in 2005 when, several days after Katrina made landfall, he made his way back from Houston, to which his family had evacuated, into a locked-down New Orleans. “I had a backpack, my gun, medical supplies, everything I needed to be completely self-sufficient,” he said. “I thought I was going to come in and do trauma debriefing and all those highfalutin things.”