Wednesday, August 30, 2006

New Orleans Reflects on Anniversary of Katrina Disaster

Wednesday August 30, 4:08 PM

New Orleans remembers Katrina with anger and tears


The somber dirges of traditional jazz funerals filled the streets of New Orleans as the city marked the first anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.

Tears were mixed with anger at officials who abandoned tens of thousands to the chaos and whose bureaucratic bungling continue to complicate reconstruction efforts.

President George W. Bush took "full responsibility" in a speech here for Washington's botched response to the disaster.

"This anniversary is not an end. And so I've come back to say that we will stand with the people of southern Louisiana and southern Mississippi until the job is done," he said at a school still under repair but ready for students.

He also pleaded with those who have yet to return to New Orleans, saying: "The people of this city have a responsibility as well. I know you love New Orleans. And New Orleans needs you. She needs people coming home."

Bush also painted a bleak picture of the aftermath of Katrina, which left about 1,500 dead and drove hundreds of thousands from their homes, and of the challenges still facing the US Gulf Coast and New Orleans in particular.

Katrina "brought terrible scenes that we never thought we would see in America: Citizens drowned in their attics; desperate mothers crying out on national TV for food and water; the breakdown of law and order; and a government, at all levels, that fell short of its responsibilities."

Before attending a somber memorial service at Saint Louis Cathedral, Bush took his motorcade down Canal Street, still blighted by boarded-up storefronts and shattered windows, to Betsy's House of Pancakes.

As he squeezed past tables, waitress Joyce Labruzzo jokingly asked him: "Mister President, are you going to turn your back on me?"

"No, ma'am," Bush said, with a laugh and a pause. "Not again."

After breakfast with New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin and Lieutenant General Russel Honore, the head of military operations in response to Katrina, Bush headed to the cathedral to remember the victims of the devastating storm.

Huge swaths of the city remain abandoned to rot and ruin. More than 200,000 people are still scattered across the country, and those who have returned are still waiting for government funds to help repair their homes.

"The little bit they're giving us is like giving scraps to a dog," said Germaine Bush, who joined a march demanding the "right to return" for the thousands of people made homeless when 80 percent of New Orleans was flooded.

Many tried to push their frustrations aside for the day and focus on remembering those who died and bringing back the spirit of the birthplace of jazz.

"We're here on a very solemn occasion," Mayor Ray Nagin said at a ceremony in front of city hall, which still bears the scars of Katrina's wrath.

"We're here to commemorate what happened and to think about that particular moment when the suffering started," he said before ringing a bell to mark the moment when the first levee was breached at 9:38 am.

"There are lots of New Orleanians who are suffering today," Nagin said. "I am personally having a difficult time with it. But trust me that we will get through it."

Tuba player Mark Smith, 47, who had to be rescued by boat from his flooded home and spent five days without food or water at the city's Convention Center waiting for help to arrive, said it was time for New Orleans to move on.

"I'd like to bring the spirit back to New Orleans and see my city get back," Smith said as he prepared to march in a jazz funeral from the Superdome to the Tomb of the Unknown Slave. "I'm glad to be playing my horn again."

The city known as the Big Easy sidestepped the worst of Katrina's winds when it ravaged the Gulf Coast a year ago. But a violent storm surge burst levees that that were long acknowledged to be inadequate to protect the low-lying city.

"It wasn't Katrina who beat us -- it was human neglect," said pastor Jerome LeDoux.

That neglect extended to the rescue and recovery effort.

Bureaucratic missteps delayed the arrival of rescue teams and food, water and medical treatment for the tens of thousands who were stranded by the floodwaters. The city's police force proved unable to control widespread looting and lawlessness, and reinforcements were slow to arrive.

Scores of elderly and ill people died in sweltering hospitals that were not evacuated until days after the power and water went out. Scores more died in their homes and on the streets waiting for help that was too slow to arrive.

The mismanaged response to the hurricane exposed the failure of the US government to prepare for a major disaster four years after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, despite multi-billion-dollar investments in homeland security.

It also exposed the deep racial divide, poverty and racism that persist in this country.

Many here believe help would have arrived faster if the people trapped for days on their roofs and at the Convention Center and Superdome had not been predominantly poor and black.

The city's isn't that way anymore. Skyrocketing rents and the government's failure to help those who can't afford to rebuild on their own come home to New Orleans has turned the once predominantly black city into a majority white city.

"I really feel the government is not doing what it's supposed to by black people," said Alfred Doucette, a Mardi Gras Indian chief and community leader. "Where's my people that lived in my neighborhood?"

The slow and uneven pace of the recovery has deepened the feeling of abandonment and frustration for many in New Orleans.

Life has returned to normal in areas that escaped the flooding - the French Quarter, Uptown, the Garden District and some suburbs - but those are mostly wealthier, white neighborhoods.

Progress elsewhere has been a patchwork of projects undertaken mostly at the individual level after political infighting stalled the release of the city's reconstruction plan until the end of the year.

Of the roughly 110 billion dollars the US Congress allocated in the wake of the storm, just 44 billion has been spent amid bitter disputes and finger-pointing among state and local governments and Washington.

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