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On anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, residents mourn losses, celebrate life

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

NEW ORLEANS -- The first anniversary of the biggest calamity to befall this city was marked Tuesday with a moment of silence, wreath-layings, the tolling of church bells and, in true New Orleans fashion, a wailing jazz funeral through the potholed streets for the victims of Hurricane Katrina.

Jazz musicians played a dirge for the more than 1,800 people killed when Katrina came ashore. But the ensemble soon exploded in a joyful rhythm, the marchers opening colorful parasols and hoisting them toward the hot sun as they danced the city back to life.

"This is a new day. A time to repent," said Carolyn Jones of New Orleans, who came to see the roughly one-mile procession from the city's convention center to the Superdome -- both scenes of the storm's misery a year ago.

Residents held vigils in pockmarked neighborhoods choked with weeds, in church pews and in gutted community centers. They rang bells to mark the collapse of the city's biggest levee and laid wreaths at the site of each successive break in the cement structure protecting the city.

They bowed their heads and closed their eyes in prayer, both for those no longer here and for the city's rebirth.

At a midday interfaith prayer service, Mayor Ray Nagin told the city it was time to take responsibility for rebuilding.

"If government can't get you your check on time, it says you need to do something," Nagin said. "It says your neighbors need to come together and all you need to do is cook a pot of red beans and they'll bring over the hammers and the nails."

Nagin met with President Bush, who bowed his head for the dead in St. Louis Cathedral, the city's mother church, and made an impassioned plea for the living.

"I know you love New Orleans, and New Orleans needs you," the president said. "She needs people coming home. She needs people -- she needs those saints to come marching back, is what she needs!"

On his way out of the city, Bush's motorcade drove to the shattered Lower Ninth Ward, where water from the buckled levees tore homes from their foundations and spit them into the street. He stopped at the destroyed home of New Orleans rock 'n' roller Fats Domino.

Not far away, people danced, sang and wept at the new concrete levee that replaced one that had split open on the Industrial Canal in the Lower Ninth.

In St. Bernard Parish -- where virtually every building was flooded when the levees failed -- hundreds gathered to dedicate a cement-and-granite monument to the 129 people who died in the parish. The monument is flanked by a massive metal cross.

At a memorial erected outside the convention center -- where a year ago thousands of haggard refugees waited on the pavement in the sweltering sun, begging for food and water -- relatives of the dead came bearing flowers. They laid white carnations in front of the monument, one by one, reciting the names of lost loved ones.

Joyce Brulee was there to remember her 99-year-old father, Benjamin Francois, who died in a New Orleans nursing home. "He was so looking forward to his 100th birthday," Brulee said, adding that she was not able to claim his body until January.

The reminders of the destruction -- and how far the city still has to go -- are everywhere. White trailers still line driveways in neighborhoods where debris is stacked up in piles. Only half New Orleans' population of a half-million has returned. Emergency medical care is doled out in an abandoned department store, while six of city's nine hospitals remain closed. Only 54 of 128 public schools are expected to open this fall.


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