5 years after Katrina, people across the Gulf Coast recall chaos, celebrate region’s rebirth

By Michael Kunzelman, AP
Sunday, August 29, 2010

Memories of chaos, rebirth 5 years after Katrina

SHELL BEACH, La. — Two strangers shared an umbrella and a somber embrace Sunday as they scanned 163 names on a marble wall honoring those who died in Louisiana’s coastal St. Bernard Parish when Hurricane Katrina wracked the region.

Gladys Nunez and Linda Wells didn’t know each other before a service at the site — but both knew too many of the names etched onto the memorial, friends and neighbors who perished in the storm’s chaos five years ago. Nunez wrapped her arm around Wells, who was visiting the site for the first time.

“I had to come see for myself and try to put this behind me,” said Wells, 50, of Chalmette.

Nunez, 68, of Toca, said: “It’s something we’ll live with for the rest of our life. It never goes away. Katrina showed no mercy.”

Memorials were planned across the Gulf Coast from New Orleans’ Lower 9th Ward to Biloxi, Miss., to mourn the hundreds who died when Katrina hit on Aug. 29, 2005. For many, though, it also was a time to reflect on how far the region has come since then, everything that’s been restored.

More than 100 people braved Sunday’s soggy weather for the memorial service in Shell Beach, where parish officials read aloud all 163 names on the memorial. After a moment of silence, Diane Phillips, 51, of Hopedale, volunteered to lay a wreath in the bayou. Some wiped away tears as the wreath floated away. Phillips had two cousins and several close friends who died in the storm.

“I didn’t think of one person when we did the wreath,” she said. “You think of the whole entire parish and everything that we lost that day and everything that we’ve brought back since then.”

Indeed, for many on the Gulf Coast — still reeling from the massive BP oil spill — the mood is still one of mourning. In New Orleans, the bells will toll at St. Louis Cathedral in honor of the dead.

Other ceremonies were to focus on rebuilding and moving on. A “healing ceremony” and march were planned in the Lower 9th Ward — where only about a quarter of the 5,400 homes that stood in the area before the storm have been rebuilt. Many still bear a constant reminder of Katrina, spray-painted circles indicating they had been searched and whether bodies were inside.

“I’m tired of the anniversaries,” Barbara Washington, 77, said Saturday at a symbolic funeral and burial for the storm in Chalmette, La. She lost her home in New Orleans and is now living in a suburb. “I miss my home every day. I feel lost. But I also know we are getting back. We’re survivors.”

In the afternoon, President Barack Obama will speak at Xavier University — which, like 80 percent of New Orleans, was flooded when the levees failed. He will recall those who died and reassure those who have returned that he is committed to rebuilding.

Other events were planned throughout the region, including a reunion of those who evacuated to the Superdome and memorials in coastal St. Tammany and Plaquemines parishes.

At the symbolic burial Saturday in Chalmette, mourners filled a steel-gray casket with notes, cards and letters.

One, written by a child in red crayon, said: “Go away from us.”

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