/ 29 August 2007

New Orleans mourns Katrina dead two years on

Still struggling to rebuild, New Orleans on Wednesday mourned the loss of about 1 500 lives when Hurricane Katrina ravaged the coast two years ago, as United States President George Bush vowed better days lay ahead.

Scores of tiny hand bells tinkled as the city’s prominent mayor, Ray Nagin, led a poignant memorial service to the dead and remembered the devastation that laid waste whole communities.

Bush, who was sharply criticised for failing to respond swiftly to the enormous tragedy unfolding before the nation’s eyes, on Wednesday paid his 15th visit to the city since the storm hit on August 29 2005.

”New Orleans, better days are ahead,” he said during a visit to a school in the city, shortly after a moment’s silence for the victims.

”When Hurricane Katrina broke through the levees, it broke a lot of hearts, it destroyed buildings, but it didn’t affect the spirit of a lot of citizens in this community.”

But in the separate ceremony led by Nagin, who has become a prominent US figure with his tireless campaign to rebuild the city, tears flowed amid the bitter memories of the storm that tore apart the Big Easy.

While parts of the city, such as the famous French Quarter, have managed to come back to life thanks to their higher elevation, much has been left to rot, a silent testament to the inefficiency of the US emergency services.

About 80% of the city was left uninhabitable when Katrina struck the Gulf Coast, driving high seas over the city’s levees and causing hundreds of thousands to flee.

Two years on 42 250 families in Louisiana are still living in cramped government-supplied trailers and blue tarps still cover damaged roofs.

Billions of dollars in federal aid remain wrapped up in bureaucratic red tape and blame is flying in all directions.

Later on Wednesday, the city was to unveil the Katrina Memorial in a nearby park. About 1 500 people were killed across the Gulf Coast, 1 100 of them in New Orleans.

About 100 of the storm’s unidentified and unclaimed victims will be laid to rest on Wednesday at the new memorial among hurricane-shaped walkways.

”This will be the one memorial where victims of the storm will be actually buried,” said Gerard Schoen, a funeral director at Lake Lawn Metairie Cemetery, one of the city’s oldest burial grounds, who helped organise the event.

The plight of this city, where the old and infirm were left to die in the streets as murderous flood waters churned through breached levees, has also become a rallying point by Democratic candidates ahead of the November 2008 presidential election.

The president and First Lady Laura Bush were to travel later to Mississippi to get a briefing on rebuilding there and make a statement before heading back to Washington.

On the eve of the observances, however, the grief of the still-wounded city was captured in a single card left in a cemetery, amid a field of white flags honouring the victims.

”We all miss you. It never got any easier in the two years you have been gone. You were our rock. We begged you to leave, but you just didn’t think it was going to hit here,” read a note by the daughter of 76-year-old storm victim Meahrer Patrick Turner.

The musicians, artists and everyday residents who made the jazz mecca unlike any other place in the country are battling with exorbitant rents, rising costs of utilities, high insurance, spiking property taxes and crime.

Homeowners are still struggling to find reliable contractors and weave through the bureaucracy of the government and insurance companies so they can pay them.

And workers in the remote, heavily damaged residential areas of eastern New Orleans find little safety in numbers — gunmen rob job sites en masse in broad daylight.

The city is on pace to become the nation’s homicide capital with 140 murders so far this year in a depopulated city of only 275 000 people.

The stress is also taking a huge mental toll: a recent government study found that mental illness has doubled among Gulf Coast residents, there is a surge in the number of people considering suicide and there are more people suffering from post-traumatic stress now than there were a year ago. — AFP