Survivors mark second anniversary of Katrina with prayers, protests

New Orleans City Council member Cynthia Willard-Lewis looks down into the Industrial Canal after throwing a memorial wreath into the water on the second anniversary of Hurricane Katrina on Wednesday. THE ASSOCIATED PRESS,S ALEX BRANDON


New Orleans City Council member Cynthia Willard-Lewis looks down into the Industrial Canal after throwing a memorial wreath into the water on the second anniversary of Hurricane Katrina on Wednesday. THE ASSOCIATED PRESS,S ALEX BRANDON

By Mary Foster

NEW ORLEANS – Prayers, protests and a lingering disgust with the government’s response to Hurricane Katrina marked the disaster’s second anniversary Wednesday, with a presidential visit doing little to mollify those still displaced by the storm.

Clarence Russ, 64, took a dim view of politicians’ promises as he tried to put the finishing touches on his repaired home in the city’s devastated Lower Ninth Ward.

“There was supposed to be all this money, but where’d it go? None of us got any,” said Russ, whose house was the only restored home on an otherwise desolate block.

Not far away, President Bush visited a school. “We’re still paying attention. We understand,” he said before heading to the Mississippi Gulf Coast, also devastated by Katrina.

But Gina Martin, who is still living in Houston after Katrina destroyed her New Orleans home, was not convinced. “Bush was down here again making more promises he isn’t going to keep. The government has failed all of us. It’s got to stop,” she said.

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Martin was among an estimated 1,000 people taking part in a protest march that started in the Lower Ninth Ward. It was a uniquely New Orleans-style protest: There were signs accusing the Bush administration of murder and angry chants about the failure of government. But marchers also danced in the street accompanied by two brass bands.

Katrina was a powerful Category 3 hurricane when it hit the Gulf Coast the morning of Aug. 29, 2005, broke through levees in New Orleans and flooded 80 percent of the city.

By the time the water dried up weeks later, more than 1,600 people across Louisiana and Mississippi were dead, and a shocked nation saw miles of wrecked homes, mud and debris from one of the worst natural disasters in its history.

In New Orleans, recovery has been spotty at best. The historic French Quarter and neighborhoods close to the Mississippi River did not flood and have bounced back fairly well. The city’s population has reached an estimated 277,000, about 60 percent its pre-storm level of 455,000. Sales tax revenues are approaching normal, and tourism and the port industry are recovering.

But vast stretches of the city show little or no recovery. A housing shortage and high rents have hampered business growth. The homeless population has almost doubled since the storm, and many of those squat in an estimated 80,000 vacant dwellings. Violent crime is also on the rise, and the National Guard and state troopers still supplement a diminished local police force.

Bush, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin and Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco all have drawn harsh criticism in the storm’s aftermath. Blanco, who appeared with the president at the Ninth Ward school, opted not to run for re-election this year after polls showed her popularity at rock bottom.

While Bush visited, Blanco said she asked him to, among other things, cut through red tape that she said has delayed the distribution of federal aid. She also said she asked him to withdraw his threatened veto of a federal water resources bill that she said would help strengthen Louisiana levees and close a controversial navigation channel that some blame for exacerbating Katrina’s floods.

Bells pealed amid prayers, song and tears at the groundbreaking for a planned Katrina memorial at a New Orleans cemetery.

“We ring the bells for a city that is in recovery, that is struggling, that is performing miracles on a daily basis,” said Nagin.

The memorial will be the final resting place for more than two dozen unclaimed bodies.

“The saddest thing I’ve seen here is that there are 30 human beings who will be buried here one day that nobody ever called about,” David Kopra, a volunteer from Olympia, Wash., said, holding back tears.

At the Claiborne Avenue bridge over the Industrial Canal, mourners tossed a wreath into the water near the spot where a levee breach led to the inundation of the Lower Ninth Ward.

In Mississippi, about 100 people prayed and sang in the shadow of a Katrina monument on the neatly manicured town green of Biloxi.

“God has been good to Biloxi and its people of the Mississippi Gulf Coast,” Mayor A.J. Holloway said. “We have a new outlook on life and a new appreciation for what’s really important in life. It’s not your car or your clothes or your possessions. It’s being alive and knowing the importance of family and friends and knowing that we all have a higher power.”

In Gulfport, Miss., Gov. Haley Barbour urged people to see the positive. About 13,000 of his state’s families are still living in FEMA trailers, but that’s down from a peak of 48,000, and he expects they could all be out of the temporary housing in a year.

Some let the day pass without fanfare. James Chaney, working on his sister’s washed-out house in New Orleans, had no use for the protesters.

“They’ve done that stuff and done that stuff. It doesn’t help us. It doesn’t get us anything. It doesn’t get anyone to help us.”

Associated Press writers Cain Burdeau, Alan Sayre and Stacey Plaisance in New Orleans and Becky Bohrer in Biloxi, Miss., contributed to this story.