After a week packed with analysis, discussions, panels and debates, Saturday dawned as a day of remembrance and mourning.
Worshippers at interfaith services in Broadmoor and elsewhere across the region mourned the more than 1,500 people who died in Louisiana from Hurricane Katrina, most of them casualties of the flooding caused by New Orleans levees that failed after the storm blew through on Aug. 29, 2005.
From Mandeville to Westwego, at Catholic Masses at Our Lady of the Lake and Our Lady of Prompt Succor churches, parishioners on Saturday mourned the dead and praised God for pulling them through dark days.
At a “Gracias Latinos” concert in Central City, New Orleanians danced alongside members of the city’s growing Latino community, to give thanks both for homes rebuilt by immigrants and for the added vibrancy that Latino traditions have brought to the city’s celebrated culture.
The day was capped by an evening commemoration at the Smoothie King Center featuring former President Bill Clinton and Mayor Mitch Landrieu.
The event, emceed by Soledad O’Brien, promised a long list of advocates, faith leaders and musicians, including national R&B artist and New Orleans native Ledisi; the Rebirth Brass Band; singers John Boutte, Stephanie Jordan and Tonya Boyd-Cannon; Ivan Neville’s band Dumpstaphunk; Big Chief Monk Boudreaux; and the Warren Easton Charter High School Marching Band.
Pointing to inequities in the recovery, Clinton told the crowd of several thousand, “Laugh tonight, and dance to the music. You’ve earned it. Tomorrow, wake up and say, ‘Look at what we did. I bet we can do the rest, too.’ ”
Yet for many people, Saturday was just a regular day in New Orleans.
Some were weary of all the Katrina talk. “I don’t like to look back at that time,” one longtime resident of the 9th Ward said as she climbed into her car. “Plus, I have to get my grandson to work by noon,” she added, pointing to her passengers.
It also was an ordinary day for the man in cook’s pants riding his bicycle into the French Quarter and for the crews in yellow hardhats raising dust as they worked to build the St. Claude Avenue streetcar line with shovels.
Katrina also did not enter the minds of the family of Melanie Williams, a 25-year-old who died last week of a heart attack, leaving behind a husband and two young sons. Her family, dressed in black, gathered outside the Charbonnet-Labat-Glapion Funeral Home in the Treme neighborhood on Saturday, remembering the ambitious young woman who’d gone through the Job Corps and worked to make life better for her and her family before she was taken too soon. For them, fresh sorrow overshadowed the hardships of 10 years ago.
‘The conscience of this city’
Earlier, in the cool of the morning, officials including U.S. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy, Gov. Bobby Jindal and Landrieu gathered at the “cemeteries end” of Canal Street, where they laid wreaths at the Katrina Memorial to honor 54 unclaimed and 31 unnamed victims of the storm.
The memorial, created in the shape of a hurricane symbol, was built in 2008 by former Orleans Parish Coroner Dr. Frank Minyard and a coalition of local funeral directors, who believed there should be a designated central resting place for unclaimed remains.
Dr. Jeffrey Rouse, who succeeded Minyard as coroner last year, said Saturday that the memorial stands as a stark reminder of the tragedy. Those unclaimed “sit in silent watch and in silent judgment of us all. ... They are the conscience of this city,” Rouse said.
Bayou St. John resident Ennis Pepin attended the ceremony to pay tribute to her mother, who died in late 2005 of what Pepin described as storm-related causes. Though the mother is buried elsewhere, her daughter said her spirit was here, as part of the memorial. “It was all part of the great tragedy,” Pepin said. “You can’t separate anybody out.”
Xavier University jazz historian and clarinetist Michael White concluded the Katrina Memorial ceremony with a rendition of “When the Saints Go Marching In.”
For those who knew White’s story, his moving rendition of the town’s most famous anthem seemed to be an expression not only for the profound losses he’s witnessed in the city he has studied for decades but also for the loss of much of his life’s work 10 years ago: the dozens of clarinets and boxes of rare instruments and memorabilia that were submerged and lost in his house on Pratt Drive in Gentilly, a block from the London Avenue Canal breach.
His story, like that of thousands of others, remained otherwise untold on Saturday, but they provided a backdrop of solemnity to the day, even amid the inflatable bounce houses and picnic-style atmosphere that accompanied many events.
As the sun rose high into the sky over the Lower 9th Ward, more officials walked silently alongside rock ’n’ roll icon and Caffin Avenue resident Antoine “Fats” Domino in a funerary-style procession from the brand-new Andrew “Pete” Sanchez Community Center to a nearby Katrina Memorial on Reynes Street, where they laid more wreaths for those who perished, not far from the Jourdan Avenue floodwall breach.
All day, traffic piled up for those traveling in or out of the usually quiet Lower 9th Ward, as officials and protesters were joined by flocks of volunteers in matching T-shirts who were part of a citywide “day of service.” The Mayor’s Office said more than 10,000 volunteers took part in 100 service projects citywide.
At St. Claude Avenue and Forstall Street, 67 volunteers from all across the state mowed, gardened and hauled to clear an abandoned lot to make way for a produce stand.
The level of volunteerism, the resulting energy, was refreshing to Rashida Ferdinand, a Lower 9th Ward native and visual artist who created the massive ceramic target that stands several blocks away, in the neutral ground at Caffin and North Claiborne avenues. Ferdinand also heads up Sankofa, which runs a number of mobile food markets and gardens and will manage the small food stand once it’s complete.
In the years following Katrina, flocks of volunteers from across the country helped to gut and rebuild thousands of New Orleans homes. On Saturday, Clinton paid homage to those efforts as he visited a couple, Carl and Roberta Henderson, whose house in the city’s Milan neighborhood is being rebuilt by a nonprofit group, the St. Bernard Project.
After meeting with the Hendersons — who have been living in rentals since the storm — and about 10 volunteers building their Uptown house, the former president acknowledged that for many New Orleans residents like the Hendersons, the recovery has been far from swift.
“A lot has been done, a lot of money has been put in here, but we have to finish the job,” Clinton said. “Even with all the aid, there is a racial and an income disparity in the way the recovery’s affected people. So we should celebrate the last 10 years, take what we’ve learned and turn up the heat on things like these home constructions.”
Many ‘are not yet whole’
The still sparsely populated Lower 9th Ward also was a nerve center of protest on Saturday, as hundreds of people marched and danced to brass bands as part of the Lower 9th Ward March, an annual event that started in 2006 and was organized this year by rapper Sess 4-5, Q93.3 host Wild Wayne and spoken-word poet Sunni Patterson, who remains displaced in Atlanta due to an unrepaired family house here.
In a quintessential New Orleans mix of purpose and pleasure, protesters danced and sang but also reminded the crowd at Hunter’s Field in the 7th Ward, the procession’s endpoint, that many New Orleanians “are not yet whole.”
Activists from 350.org also warned of climate change, and roving performers from artist Kai Lumumba Barrow’s project “Ecohybridity” posed questions about New Orleans’ trajectory as a city, in light of the continuing racial inequities in income and levels of recovery.
As part of Barrow’s project, several people nestled inside half of a small, hand-built house parading down the street on wheels, seemingly a statement about the current state of black homeowners, many of whom faced more difficulties rebuilding than their white counterparts.
From a larger perspective, the project aims to draw attention to the city’s reduced black population, which is 100,000 smaller than it was in 2000, in addition to the rapid rise in housing prices after Katrina, said Nelle Mills, 25, of Mid-City.
March participant Ray Charles Jr., 33, weathered the disaster in Chalmette. “Six days. No water. No food,” he said. On Saturday, however, he had a drink in his hand and a smile on his face as his 3-year-old nephew Joshua, an Indian with the Red Hawk Hunters, attracted a crowd with his dance moves.
Joshua, of course, was too young to remember the water and the deprivation. “He wasn’t here when Katrina ripped,” his uncle said.
‘We still keep our heads up’
But Donald Lewis, 52, was here at the time. On Saturday, he rode near the side of the parade on a green bicycle, wearing a memorial shirt bearing an image of his daughter Doneika, who was 14 when the storm hit.
Lewis had driven to Flood Street in the Lower 9th Ward to pick up his son and Doneika as the storm approached. He and his son left. But Doneika was still packing, so she stayed behind, planning to evacuate with an aunt.
The two never made it out.
Lewis was displaced in Atlanta, where he stayed with family members.
“I wasn’t going to come back, on account of my daughter’s death,” he said, but as more and more family members returned, he felt lonely in Atlanta. Now he lives near Elysian Fields Avenue in the 7th Ward.
The march was a bittersweet moment for Lewis, a chance to both remember his sorrows and celebrate what remains, as New Orleanians have learned to do for generations.
“We still keep our heads up and keep smiling,” he said.