New Orleans Honors Its Dead

By Michael Abramowitz and Peter Whoriskey
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, August 30, 2006

NEW ORLEANS, Aug. 29 -- Church bells pealed at 9:38 a.m. here Tuesday, the moment floodwaters breached the city's levees a year ago, as the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina cast a funereal pall over this half-empty city.

On his 13th trip to the Gulf Coast since the storm, President Bush joined residents in commemorating the losses with a particularly New Orleans flavor. Local dignitaries, emergency workers and politicians wended their way from the Convention Center to the Louisiana Superdome in a traditional jazz funeral procession, while during a remembrance Mass attended by Bush at the St. Louis Cathedral a clarinetist poured out a soulful version of "Just a Closer Walk With Thee."

At the Seventeenth Street Canal in the Lakeview area, where one of the most disastrous of flood-control failures occurred, a crowd of about 130 people gathered. Names of the local dead were read aloud, and a rose was thrown into the canal's water for each one. The flowers floated away in the waters, now calm.

At least for the day, it seemed that the bitter politics that have attended much of the aftermath of Katrina receded a bit. Archbishop Alfred C. Hughes told the president and other worshipers that good will have come out of the hurricane if the city can construct a better public school system, overcome racial and ethnic divisions, and eliminate an unfair health-care system. "God will have helped us to achieve a greater good," Hughes said.

Bush again accepted responsibility for the botched federal response to Katrina. "The hurricane . . . brought terrible scenes that we never thought we would see in America," Bush told a friendly audience gathered at Warren Easton Senior High School. "Citizens drowned in their attics, desperate mothers crying out on national TV for food and water, a breakdown of law and order, and a government at all levels that fell short of its responsibilities."

The White House carefully chose the scenes it wanted to highlight on this, the anniversary of one of Bush's biggest political embarrassments. Warren Easton is the city's oldest public high school and, like others, shut down after the city flooded. It has reformulated itself as a charter school, with greater leeway to set its own rules and have its own board.

In anticipation of the president's visit, school employees scrambled to complete work on plumbing and electricity, according to the principal, Alexina Medley, and the entire first floor remained gutted. Still, Warren Easton will reopen next week a year ahead of schedule, with about 800 students expected to attend, about a third fewer than before.

New Orleans has seen a flowering of such charter schools in the past year, and Bush hailed the trend, a small example of his more conservative policies taking root in the aftermath of Katrina. He also pledged scholarships for poor children to attend the city's parochial schools. "It's good for New Orleans to have competing school systems," Bush said.

After speaking at the school, Bush traveled by motorcade through the shattered Ninth Ward, and he stopped at the home of legendary singer Fats Domino, whose house was damaged by the storm. Bush presented Domino with a National Medal of Arts to replace the one the musician had lost in the storm.

Before getting on the plane to leave, Bush received a New Orleans Saints jersey from rookie running back Reggie Bush.

Elsewhere in the city, signs and T-shirts served as banners for rebuilding rallying cries. One woman waved an American flag and held a sign that read "Hold the Corps Accountable!" T-shirts read "Lakeview Lives!" and "Make Levees Not War."

"It's been a horrible year," said Carol Etter, 49, a business consultant who came out to the canal. Her T-shirt read, "Hurricane Recovery is a Marathon Not A Sprint." "When you measure progress by the fact that there's trash in the neighbor's yard -- that means they're gutting -- then it's been an awful year. It'll never be the same," Etter said.

Suzanne Kling, 36, a homemaker from the neighborhood, was wearing a T-shirt that read, "Lakeview -- If you build it, they will come." She said she is moving back to the neighborhood in a few months and believes that, of the 16 homes on the block, four others will be occupied by returning families by the end of the year.

The other 11 families, she hopes, will follow. "We're pioneers," she said, casting a gaze toward the nearly vacant blocks of homes.

Meanwhile, the jazz funeral procession moved from the Superdome to the Treme neighborhood, starting first with spirituals such as "The Old Rugged Cross" and "When I Lay My Burdens Down."

As the parade moved along, passersby jumped in behind to march, glide-step and shimmy to the music. In other cities, people might have considered them strange and crossed to the other side; in New Orleans, people jumped in behind and started moving to the music as if it were the most natural possible reaction.

By the end of the parade, the music growing increasingly joyous, a crowd of about 200 people followed, blacks and whites together. "We're burying . . . Katrina," said Okyeame Haley, 37, a lawyer who had joined in.

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