Gulf Coast marks Katrina’s fury, celebrates rebirth

George W. Bush, Asia Muhaimin
Former President George W. Bush dances with band director Asia Muhaimin as the band plays, during a visit to Warren Easton Charter High School in New Orleans, Friday, Aug. 28, 2015. Bush is in town to commemorate the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, which is Saturday. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — As the church bells rang marking the decade since Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast, the 80-year-old woman wept softly into a tissue as she leaned against her rusting Oldsmobile near a Catholic church in Mississippi.

“I feel guilty,” said Eloise Allen, whose house in Bay St. Louis was damaged but inhabitable after the storm. “I didn’t go through what all the other people did.”

Saturday was a day to remember what “all the other people” went through. Those who were lifted from rooftops by helicopters, those who came home to find only concrete steps as evidence of where their house used to be, those whose bodies were never claimed after the storm.

But the mourning Saturday was balanced by a celebration of how far the region has come since Hurricane Katrina.

The storm killed more than 1,800 people and caused $151 billion in damage, in one of the country’s deadliest and most costly natural disasters. The dead were not far from anyone’s thoughts Saturday, from Mississippi where church bells rang out to mark when the storm made landfall to a commemoration at the New Orleans memorial containing bodies of people never claimed or never identified.

Mayor Mitch Landrieu spoke of the dark days after the monstrous storm and how the city’s residents leaned on each other for support.

“We saved each other,” the mayor said. “New Orleans will be unbowed and unbroken.”

In Biloxi, Mississippi, clergy and community leaders gathered at a newly built Minor League Baseball park for a memorial to Katrina’s victims and later that evening the park was hosting a concert celebrating the recovery.

During a prayer service at a seaside park in Gulfport, former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour praised volunteers who worked on the Katrina recovery. He said more than 954,000 volunteers came from around the country to Mississippi in the first five years after the storm, and many were motivated by faith.

“They thought it was God’s command to try to help people in need,” Barbour said.

Katrina’s force caused a massive storm surge that scoured the Mississippi coast, pushed boats far inland and wiped houses off the map.

Glitzy casinos and condominium towers have been rebuilt. But overgrown lots and empty slabs speak to the slow recovery in some communities.

In New Orleans, wide scale failures of the levee system on Aug. 29, 2005, left 80 percent of the city under water.

New Orleans has framed the 10th anniversary as a showcase designed to demonstrate to the world how far a city that some questioned rebuilding has come. In the week leading up to the actual anniversary, the city has held lectures, given tours of the levee improvements and released a resiliency plan.

Many parts of the iconic city have rebounded phenomenally while many residents — particularly in the black community — still struggle.

In New Orleans’ Lower 9th Ward, residents and community activists gathered Saturday at the levee where Katrina’s storm waters broke through and submerged the neighborhood.

Once a bastion of black home ownership, it still hasn’t regained anywhere near its pre-Katrina population. But a day of events illustrated how attached the residents who have returned are to their community.

After the speeches were done, a parade snaked through the neighborhood while music played from boom boxes and people sold water from ice chests under the hot sun.

Clarence Davis’s family home was four blocks from the levee. He evacuated before Katrina and eventually returned to the region, but now lives in the suburbs. He came back Saturday just to find old faces from the neighborhood but he couldn’t bring himself to see the vacant lot where his house used to be.

“The family home is what kept us together and it’s gone,” he said. His family is scattered now in Houston, Atlanta and Louisiana as are many of his neighbors.

Wilmington Sims watched the parade from his front porch. He helped build the house before Katrina, then had to re-do the work after flooding from the levee break damaged the first floor.

He said the outpouring of support was “uplifting” but many people still need help and the Lower 9th Ward needs economic development.

In the evening, former President Bill Clinton was headlining a free concert-prayer service-celebration at Smoothie King Center in New Orleans. The event will also feature performances by the city’s “Rebirth Brass Band,” award-winning journalist Soledad O’Brien and Big Chief Monk Boudreaux and the Wild Magnolias.

Neighborhoods across New Orleans held local events to commemorate the storm, and thousands of volunteers spread out across the city in a day of community activism.

As the anniversary came to a close and the region looked to the future, Maggie Carroll, who heads the Broadmoor Improvement Association in New Orleans, said there’s a “real challenge” to make sure that the spirit that drove so much of the recovery post-Katrina continues on.

“We need to fight the complacency,” she said. “Our neighborhood still has problems just like New Orleans has problems.”


Kevin McGill reported from Bay St. Louis and Gulfport, Mississippi.

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