Aug 29, 2010
By Bruce Nolan
With prayers and the solemn tolling of bells, but also with second-line parades and the drumming of Mardi Gras Indians, New Orleanians throughout the region on Sunday took stock of their rebuilt lives in the five years since the worst event in the region’s history, and promised each other to keep the recovery going.
Observances of the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and its levee failures entailed a complicated day-long inventory conducted as a light, steady rain drenched the landscape. The day was filled with equal parts gratitude, mourning, frustration and hope in the face of a mammoth rebuilding job started but not yet complete.
“We are not rebuilding the city that was; we are rebuilding the city that is to be,” Mayor Mitch Landrieu told the audience at the city’s official event at the Mahalia Jackson Theater for the Performing Arts, where the anniversary commemoration turned into a fiercely joyous celebration of New Orleans culture.
It opened with drumming and the arrival of a dozen Mardi Gras Indian chiefs and spy boys in full regalia, with Big Chief Bo Dollis of the Wild Magnolias leading the audience in the traditional “My Indian Red” and other chants.
The explicit message: New Orleans’ cultural heart still beats.
The anniversary drew to New Orleans President Barack Obama and his family as well as actress Sandra Bullock, who helped open a health clinic at Warren Easton Charter High School.
In six hours here, Obama; his wife, Michelle; and their daughters Malia and Sasha ate po-boys at Parkway Bakery & Tavern and visited Maude Smith, who had been rescued by boat from her apartment in the old St. Bernard housing development.
At Xavier University, Obama promised: “My administration is going to stand with you, and fight alongside you, until the job is done, until New Orleans all the way back.”
Later, in Metairie, Gov. Bobby Jindal told more than 1,000 people at Celebration Church that “sometimes it takes a tragedy like Katrina to remind you of what’s really important — to treasure the people in our lives, to make the most of our time on this earth.”
Looking back to those days following the storm, Jindal said, “It’d be easy to tell you story after story of red tape and bureaucracy and heartache and incompetence that made the made the natural disaster even worse. I think it’s better to focus on the heroes — the first responders, the churches and others that did such an amazing job.”
The fifth anniversary was marked differently than earlier ones — especially the 2006 observance, in which the dominant note remained a sense of stunned grief.
In St. Bernard Parish, for instance, residents at Shell Beach cast a wreath onto the waters of the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet, which five years ago shotgunned a wall of water into the parish and the Lower 9th Ward, destroying everything in its path.
But after five years of hard work, that ceremony saw more than loss. Pastor Ben Alderman of Harvest Time Ministries noted the unity that Katrina forged in hardship.
“We have unity here in our parish. That’s what makes us so proud and so powerful, that we can love one another, we can go through these storms, we can go through that oil slick, we can go through things that come upon us.”
At St. Louis Cathedral, representatives of eight world religions and hundreds of participants prayed prayer of gratitude, grief and hope.
Lutheran Bishop Michael Rinehart told hundreds at the interfaith service that “suffering is the crucible of greatness” and that New Orleans has emerged from its near-death experience with a clearer vision of what it wants to become.
“We will never be the same,” said Rinehart. “Thank God, we will never be the same.”
But recovery has been uneven from storm that killed 1,464 in Louisiana, wrecked 182,000 homes and drove 125,000 in continuing exile.
Post-Katrina data indicate widening disparities among rich and poor around New Orleans. In the Lower 9th Ward, where a handful of trophy homes stand sentinel over a still-ruined neighborhood, more than 1,000 residents gathered to protest their plight and renew their loyalty to their neighborhood, come what may.
Some wore T-shirts or carried placards announcing their fierce loyalty to their still-devastated neighborhood. Some, like Monique Atkinson, wore T-shirts memorializing loved ones killed in the storm — in her case, her aunt, Margie Lewis, 75, who was torn from her son’s grasp and swept away by the floodwaters coursing through Gentilly. Her body has never been found, Atkinson said.
And others repeated a common theme: They are determined to stay in the Lower 9th, but that flaws in the Road Home program and other public assistance programs systematically discriminated against the historic blue-collar neighborhood that was one of the most severely damaged in the storm.
Some of that sentiment was voiced by U.S. Rep Maxine Waters, D-Calif., who was critical of the Road Home program, of “low-down, dirty insurance companies” and, to some extent, reformers who launched a vast experiment with charter schools after the storm.
“We want our public schools back,” Waters said to applause.
The ceremonies just a few blocks from the Industrial Canal floodwall that disastrously failed unfolded in a landscape where three-fourths of the neighborhood’s residents have been unable to return.
While the neighborhood is a showcase for some well-documented homes, erected by actor Brad Pitt’s Make It Right foundation, vast stretches remain vacant and weed-choked. And it was this condition that residents sought to emphasize at the memorial, which began with a second-line up North Claiborne Avenue to the top of the bridge over the Industrial Canal, where a wreath was lain.
Anna Firstley, a lifelong resident of the 9th Ward, said she was one of the first to rebuild her home but has mixed feelings about that decision.
“It’s a sad, sad situation,” Firstley said. She said she is one of 13 occupants in the 1700 block of Alabo Street. A block away has only one occupied house, she said.
She described daily life among vacant, overgrown lots rife with snakes, rats and mice. “I’ll be 72 next birthday, and I’ll be doggone if I ever thought I’d have to live like this,” she said.
Still, the dominant theme was residents’ determination to dig in and make a new life where they are.
Calandthia Randall, who has rebuilt her home in the 7th Ward, said she nonetheless feels the recovery is incomplete. “I’ll be fully recovered when I see the city recovered,” she said.
Staff writers Chris Kirkham, Kari Dequine, John Pope contributed to this report.
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