New Orleans marks Katrina anniversary

August 29, 2008 5:12:31 PM PDT
At 9:38 a.m. on Friday, about 200 mourners rang handbells to mark the moment three years ago when New Orleans' levees were breached by high waters from Hurricane Katrina, flooding most of the city and leading to the deaths of about 1,600 people.Eighty-five victims of the storm left unclaimed by any survivors were finally laid to rest as another deadly storm, Hurricane Gustav, strengthened in the Gulf of Mexico and threatened the city.

A horsedrawn carriage carried the last seven gleaming coffins to the mausoleum on Friday, while jazz trumpeter Ken Ferdinand played "Amazing Grace." The other 78 victims were interred on Thursday in a scramble to beat an evacuation order expected Saturday.

"We look ahead to a better day, as we also prepare ourselves for another threat," Mayor Ray Nagin said as he helped lift and guide the last coffin into the tomb.

The audience at the memorial service sat under the hot sun because tarps intended to shelter them were requisitioned for the approaching storm. Gustav also canceled a planned eight-block jazz funeral procession for the service.

Gustav was swirling at an agonizingly slow pace near Jamaica on Friday after being blamed for at least 71 deaths in its path.

Forecasters said it could hit the Louisiana coast early next week as a major hurricane: the first in the state since Katrina.

"I think God is reminding us that on the eve of Katrina, God can bring nature back," said retired Army Gen. Russell Honore, who was credited with taking control of the mayhem following Katrina.

Honore said if Gustav spares New Orleans, it should be a reminder that more work needs to be done with Katrina recovery.

The memorial itself is an example of the pained rebuilding. A relatively small $1.2 million project in the multibillion dollar Katrina recovery, it had been stalled for nearly a year until officials made a last-ditch effort to construct it by the third anniversary. It's still missing plaques that will identify all the known victims.

Julia Powers, a forensic specialist on loan from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to help the New Orleans coroner with the unclaimed dead, said her work will not be done with the burial.

About 50 of the 85 unclaimed bodies have been identified, but some families were dispersed by Katrina and could not be located. Others were too poor, or too distant a relative to bury the bodies themselves.

"We're not done exhausting all leads," Powers said. "A good thing about the mausoleums is that caskets can be removed later if a family should come forth and want to bury them themselves."

In coastal Mississippi, also devastated by Katrina, a morning memorial was held in the town of Waveland. In neighboring Bay St. Louis, officials chose not to mark the anniversary.

"We decided not to look backward. We decided to look forward with all the progress we've made," said Harold "Buz" Olsen, director of administration for Bay St. Louis.


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