1 year after Hurricane Katrina stormed ashore, Gulf Coast residents mourn, celebrate life

Tuesday, August 29th 2006, 8:52 am
By: News On 6

NEW ORLEANS (AP) _ Bells tolled in this shattered city Tuesday morning, marking the moment one year earlier when New Orleans' levees buckled and unleashed a torrent of water that ripped homes from their foundations and sent half the city into an uncertain exile.

As the bells rang, survivors of the storm gathered outside City Hall.

``I felt like I needed to be here. It's like a funeral, and life goes on after today,'' said Gayla Dunn, 33, of New Orleans.

Mayor Ray Nagin told the crowd the anniversary was a difficult day for everyone, including himself.

``Trust me. We will get through it. We will get through it together,'' he said.

As Nagin spoke at City Hall, President Bush and first lady Laura Bush sang a hymn inside St. Louis Cathedral in the French Quarter, which survived Katrina's cyclonic winds and was untouched by the flooding.

Hurricane Katrina made landfall 65 miles south of the city in the tiny fishing village of Buras. Within hours, New Orleans' protective levees collapses, causing one of the worst natural disasters in U.S. history which killed over 1,800 people.

One year later, the Gulf Coast commemorated the storm that brought the region to its breaking point.

In pockmarked neighborhoods choked with weeds, in church pews and in gutted community centers, residents held public and private vigils. At each of the city's broken levees, they tossed wreaths of flowers, sending them bobbing into calm, black water.

Under an equally calm sky in Gulfport, Miss., the community remembered 14 residents lost to the storm.

``I'm hoping this is a step forward,'' said Carolyn Bozzetti, 60, whose 83-year-old father drowned in the his home during the storm. ``I've been crying for a year. I'm tired of crying.''

In St. Bernard Parish, where just about every building was flooded after the levees buckled, 400 people gathered for mass at Our Lady of Prompt Succor, a church named for the saint to whom Catholics in Louisiana traditionally pray for protection from hurricanes. The water had risen just high enough to graze the feet of a golden statue of Our Lady Of Prompt Succor beside the altar.

The working class community adjacent to New Orleans' Ninth Ward lost 129 people to the flooding.

Hundreds gathered there Tuesday to dedicate a monument with those 129 names. The monument and a massive metal cross are set against the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet, the channel that allowed the mammoth storm surge to push up the length of the parish.

``It's a hard day,'' said Wendy Stone, 40, who brought a bouquet of pink daisies for her friend who drowned.

In New Orleans, a stream of people danced, sang and openly wept at the new concrete levee wall that replaced one that had split open on the Industrial Canal. The wall of water demolished the hardscrabble Lower Ninth Ward neighborhood, and the once-bustling landscape now resembles a badly littered pasture with hip-high grass.

``This is also a way for us to mourn,'' Lavonda Hicks, 34, said as she marched past debris-strewn streets and cinder blocks where houses once stood, on the way from the Lower Ninth to Congo Square, said to be the birthplace of jazz.

Traditional spirituals spilled into the street and drums beat out rhythms.

Cedrick Johnson, 25, wiped away sweat and tears as he talked about the death of his grandmother, a longtime resident of the neighborhood.

``Look around. Look at all these empty lots. Why us?'' he said. His shirt bore a photographic image of his grandmother and the words: ``Why Geraldine. Why?''

Later, in one of the Crescent City's age-old traditions, a jazz funeral will wind through downtown streets, beginning with a somber dirge and ending with a song of joy.

Others marked the anniversary privately.

``I'm going to pray to the good Lord that he put his arms around the levees. I'm praying that he hug the levees tight so they don't break again, that he keep us safe,'' said 58-year-old Doretha Kitchens, whose home in the Lower Ninth Ward was submerged under a 10-foot wave.

Katrina grazed Florida before making landfall on Aug. 29, 2005, in Buras, a fishing village south of New Orleans on one of the fingers of land jutting out into the Gulf of Mexico. Entire blocks of houses, bars and shops vanished, whipped into the Gulf by a wall of water 21 feet high.

In New Orleans, the sun came out after the violent winds subsided, but the worst was yet to come: The industrial canal began to leak, and when two sections of the wall fell, a muddy torrent was released that yanked homes off their foundations.

Throughout the city, other parts of the levee system began to fail. With each breach came a gush of water, until 80 percent of the city was submerged.

Nearly 1,600 people died just in Louisiana and another 231 were killed in Mississippi, while the rest of the nation watched in horror as survivors begged to be rescued from rooftops and freeway overpasses. Forty-nine bodies remain unidentified in a Louisiana morgue.

The reminders of the destruction _ and how far the city still has to go _ are everywhere.

White trailers still line driveways in neighborhoods where piles of debris and unchecked weeds have overtaken abandoned houses. Only half the population has returned. Emergency medical care is doled out in an abandoned department store, while six of New Orleans' nine hospitals remain closed. Only 54 of 128 public schools are expected to open this fall.

The road to Buras, a sleepy fishing town, is still strewn with boats tossed asunder. With no mail service, residents drive 100 miles roundtrip to pay their bills. One small grocery store offers toilet paper, milk and a few other necessities.

``Lots of people used to say there was nothing down here. Now, there really is nothing down here,'' said Patricia Bairnsfather, 45, who observed the moment of silence.

The one-year mark is a reminder of also a reminder of how far each survivor has come. In Gulfport, Mayor Brent Warr spoke at sight overlooking the calm waters of the Mississippi sound which a year ago flooded the shoreline.

``We're not well. We're not finished, but I will say this: We've made it,'' Warr said. ``Let's move on, let's move forward, and let's do that together.''