The anger remains

New Orleans remembered the devastation of Hurricane Katrina with tears and anger at the officials who abandoned tens of thousands to the chaos and whose bureaucratic bungling continues to complicate reconstruction efforts.

It also mourned the deaths of hundreds of people who would have been alive today if the city’s levee system had not been built below specifications and at levels that were long acknowledged to be inadequate to protect the low-lying city.

The Big Easy sidestepped the worst of Katrina’s winds when it ravaged the Gulf Coast on August 29, 2005. But the violent storm surge smashed the levees and rushing floods swallowed 80 percent of the city, reaching depths of six meters (20 feet) in some areas. The bulk of the storm’s more than 1,500 deaths were in those flooded neighborhoods.

“It wasn’t Katrina who beat us – it was human neglect,” said pastor Jerome LeDoux.

That neglect extended to the rescue and recovery effort. The mandatory evacuation order was given a scant 19 hours before landfall and those who did not have cars or the money to leave were offered one option: shelter in the Superdome sports arena.

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

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 prompted multi-billion dollar investments in homeland security.

It also exposed the deep racial divides, 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. Half the city remains scattered across the country and a recent poll showed that 30 percent of those who have returned are considering leaving.

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.

The city has begun posting demolition notices on houses even though it has not issued any guidelines about which areas will be safe from future flooding and the state has not sent promised rebuilding funds.

Embattled Mayor Ray Nagin said the breadth of the disaster prevents a “quick fix” but blamed “bureaucracy” for the current stagnation.

“The flow of resources has to get down to the local government and the people who need it the most,” he told reporters Monday.

President George W. Bush, whose approval ratings have yet to recover from the botched response to Katrina, pleaded for patience as he launched a two-day tour of the devastated coastal Mississippi and the flood-ravaged New Orleans.

“I know there’s some frustration” with the flow of aid money, Bush said. “We understand people are still anxious to get in their homes. We understand people hear about help and wonder where it is. We know that.”

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

In a small black cemetery on the east side of New Orleans, Iris Chester stopped waiting for the government funds to help rebury the people whose crypts were smashed and tossed about by the floodwaters.

The oil refinery up the road is paying for a few men with small loaders and excavators to try to bring order to the jumbled piles of stone. But it isn’t enough.

“We’re going to do as much as we can with the equipment we have and I hope eventually we’ll get the funds,” Chester said after the workmen gave up on trying to right her cousin’s crypt.

“It’s a year later and we’re still waiting for those funds. It seems like we’re not going to get any.”

Copyright © 2006 Agence France Presse.