The Big Easy: One year later

A year after one of the worst natural disasters in U.S. history, this shattered city turned its attention to rituals of mourning and celebrations of life.

In pockmarked neighborhoods choked with weeds, in church pews and at City Hall, residents were to gather Tuesday for vigils marking the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.

They plan to remember the dead, ringing bells to mark the moment one of the city’s flood walls breached and water engulfed the northern edges of the city.

Wreathes will be laid on the site of each successive levee break, dotting the city with bouquets in a commemoration of the flood.

In one of the Crescent City’s age-old traditions, a jazz funeral was to wind through downtown streets, beginning with a somber dirge and ending with a song of joy.

At the city’s convention center, where for days haggard refugees waited in vain for food, medical assistance and buses, President Bush was expected to join an ecumenical prayer service. Others planned to mark the occasion privately at home with their own prayers — including personal calls for protection.

“I’m going to pray to the good Lord that he put his arms around the levees. I’m praying that he hug the levees tight so they don’t break again, that he keep us safe,” said 58-year-old Doretha Kitchens, whose home in the Lower Ninth Ward was submerged under a 10-foot wave.

Katrina grazed Florida before making landfall at 6:10 a.m. on Aug. 29, 2005, in Buras, a tiny fishing town 65 miles south of New Orleans on one of the fingers of land jutting out into the Gulf of Mexico. Entire blocks of houses, bars and shops vanished, whipped into the Gulf by a wall of water 21 feet high.

In New Orleans, the sun came out after the violent winds subsided, but the worst was yet to come: The industrial canal began to leak, and when two sections of the wall fell, a muddy torrent was released that yanked homes off their foundations.

Throughout the city, other parts of the levee system began to fail. With each breach came a cascade of water, until 80 percent of the city was submerged.

Nearly 1,600 people died in Louisiana, and the rest of the nation watched in horror as survivors begged to be rescued from rooftops or freeway overpasses. Forty-nine bodies remain unidentified in the city’s morgue.

Throughout the city, white trailers still line driveways in neighborhoods where debris is stacked up in piles and unchecked weeds have overtaken abandoned houses. Only half the population has returned. Emergency medical care is doled out in an abandoned department store, while six of New Orleans’ nine hospitals remain closed. Only 54 of 128 public schools are expected to open this fall.

The one-year mark is a reminder of how much needs to be done — and of how far each survivor has come.

“Only when it’s dark can you see the stars,” said the Rev. Alex Bellow, at a gathering outside a school in the Lower Ninth Ward. “So when they tell you, ‘You’re not going to make it,’ you keep looking up.”

Copyright © 2006 The Associated Press