Wed, Aug 30, 2006 - Page 7 News List

New Orleans mourns and celebrates

UNFINISHED JOB Debris still lies all over the city, only half the population has returned, hospitals remain closed and less than half the schools will open this fall


A year after one of the worst natural disasters in US 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 yesterday for vigils marking the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.

They planned to remember the dead by ringing bells to mark the moment one of the city's flood walls breached and water engulfed the northern edges of the city.

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, US President George W. Bush was expected to join an ecumenical prayer service for the victims of the hurricane.

After Katrina hit New Orleans, the sun came out and the violent winds subsided, but the worst was yet to come: the Industrial Canal began to leak, and when two sections of its retaining 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, which was underscored when a prankster posing as a federal housing official took center stage at a New Orleans event attended by the city mayor and the governor of Louisiana.

The prankster made a controversial promise to throw open the public housing that has been closed to thousands of poor former city residents.

The stunt, which the US Department of Housing and Urban Development called a "cruel hoax," was the latest by an activist group known as "The Yes Men."

In the past, members of the group have masqueraded as WTO officials announcing they were disbanding the body.

Activist Andy Bichlbaum, pretending to be HUD "Assistant Deputy Secretary Rene Oswin," told hundreds of business people at a forum the agency would reverse policy and reopen housing units now targeted for replacement.

He promised to "fix New Orleans, not just for the benefit of a few but for everyone."

The audience applauded and the moderator then thanked "Oswin" for the "dramatic announcement."

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