NEW ORLEANS – Residents around New Orleans were remembering the anniversary of the day Hurricane Katrina made landfall with rituals of mourning and celebrations of life — and of course, jazz.
One year after one of the worst natural disasters in U.S. history, bells tolled in the shattered city, marking the moment when New Orleans' levees buckled and unleashed a torrent of water that ripped homes from their foundations and sent half the city into an exile.
As the bells rang, survivors of the storm gathered outside City Hall.
"I felt like I needed to be here. It's like a funeral, and life goes on after today," said Gayla Dunn, 33, of New Orleans.
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Mayor Ray Nagin told the crowd the anniversary was a difficult day for everyone, including himself.
"Trust me. We will get through it. We will get through it together," he said.
As Nagin was speaking at City Hall, President Bush and first lady Laura Bush were singing a hymn inside St. Louis Cathedral in the untouched French Quarter, which survived Katrina's cyclonic winds.
At the city's convention center, where for days haggard refugees waited in vain for food, medical assistance and buses, Bush joined an ecumenical prayer service. Others planned to mark the occasion privately at home with their own prayers — including personal calls for protection.
The vigils and remembrance ceremonies took place in neighborhoods choked with weeds and houses waiting to be demolished. At each of the city's broken levees, they tossed wreaths of flowers, sending them bobbing into calm, black water.
In one of the 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.
"I'm going to pray to the good Lord that he put his arms around the levees. I'm praying that he hug the levees tight so they don't break again, that he keep us safe," said 58-year-old Doretha Kitchens, whose home in the Lower Ninth Ward was submerged under a 10-foot wave.
Katrina grazed Florida before making landfall at 6:10 a.m. on Aug. 29, 2005, in Buras, La., a tiny fishing town 65 miles south of New Orleans on one of the fingers of land jutting out into the Gulf of Mexico. Entire blocks of houses, bars and shops vanished, whipped into the Gulf by a wall of water 21 feet high.
Several hundred people bowed their heads in silence in the early hours of down Tuesday, marking the moment a year ago when the eye of Katrina passed over Buras.
In Mississippi, where Gulf Coast communities were also ravaged by the storm, two unidentified victims of Katrina were being laid to rest. All along the scarred coast of that state, workers and families gathered for remembrances — a sunrise service in Waveland, a casino reopening in Biloxi, film presentations recounting of Katrina's fury and the yearlong fight to survive.
Katrina killed 231 people in Mississippi and wiped away whole communities.
On the town green in Biloxi about 500 yards from the shore, several hundred people gathered Tuesday among live oak trees for a commemoration service.
"The sun is shining on us today and you know a year ago, we would've been treading water right here," said U.S. Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., who commended state and local officials for their part in the recovery efforts.
Under an calm sky in Gulfport, Miss., the community remembered 14 residents lost to the storm.
"I'm hoping this is a step forward," said Carolyn Bozzetti, 60, whose 83-year-old father drowned in the his home during the storm. "I've been crying for a year. I'm tired of crying."
In Long Beach, Miss., Katrina left only concrete slabs where houses once stood on blocks and blocks of beachfront streets on U.S. 90, just west of the storm-battered Mississippi Gulf casinos now staging a comeback.
"Seems like two months ago," Long Beach Mayor Billy Skellie said.
Skellie has daily reminders of Katrina as he drives down city streets — some deserted and battered — others have neat yards and new roofs.
"We're coming back," he said.
New Orleans at first thought it had escaped Katrina's wrath.
After getting hit with rain and howling winds, the sun came out. But the worst was yet to come: The industrial canal began to leak, and when two sections of the 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 — and of how far each survivor has come.
"Only when it's dark can you see the stars," said the Rev. Alex Bellow, at a gathering outside a school in the Lower Ninth Ward. "So when they tell you, 'You're not going to make it,' you keep looking up."
In St. Bernard Parish, where just about every building was flooded after the levees buckled, 400 people gathered for mass at Our Lady of Prompt Succor, a church named for the saint to whom Catholics in Louisiana traditionally pray for protection from hurricanes. The water had risen just high enough to graze the feet of a golden statue of Our Lady Of Prompt Succor beside the altar.
The working class community adjacent to New Orleans' Ninth Ward lost 129 people to the flooding.
Hundreds gathered there Tuesday to dedicate a monument with those 129 names. The monument and a massive metal cross are set against the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet, the channel that allowed the mammoth storm surge to push up the length of the parish.
"It's a hard day," said Wendy Stone, 40, who brought a bouquet of pink daisies for her friend who drowned.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.
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