BILOXI, Miss. – About 100 people prayed and sang Wednesday on the neatly manicured Biloxi town green, standing in the shadow of a Hurricane Katrina monument to remember the monster storm that left a wide swath of destruction along Mississippi's coastline two years ago.
Mayor A.J. Holloway said he is grateful for how far his city has come and proud of its people.
"God has been good to Biloxi and its people of the Mississippi Gulf Coast," Holloway said. "We have a new outlook on life and a new appreciation for what's really important in life. It's not your car or your clothes or your possessions. It's being alive and knowing the importance of family and friends and knowing that we all have a higher power."
The memorial was one of several planned along the Gulf Coast to mark the second anniversary of the storm that killed more than 200 in Mississippi and 1,400 in neighboring Louisiana. Katrina destroyed thousands of homes and businesses, many of which are still not rebuilt.
Emergency workers in dress uniforms — police in blue and firefighters in white — were among those attending the service on the oak-shaded Biloxi green, about a block north of the beach. Gulf waters rippled slightly in the breeze, and the U.S. flag hung limply in the calm air.
The memorial itself stands about 12 feet tall, marking the peak of the muscular tidal surge that sucked entire neighborhoods out to sea and tossed ashore hulking casino barges that were longer than football fields.
Local clergy members said prayers for the people killed by Katrina, and the names of 51 identified victims from Biloxi were read aloud.
Occasionally during the solemn service, snippets of music could be heard from the Hard Rock hotel and casino across U.S. Highway 90 — a sign of the rebounding Gulf Coast tourism market.
Several memorial services were planned in Mississippi on Wednesday, including one in Gulfport to remember "Will" and "Strength," two of the storm's victims who were buried without their identities being known. President Bush and Mrs. Bush were to be in Bay St. Louis on Wednesday.
The marker that for one year identified one of the victims as "Will" was being replaced with a tombstone Wednesday with his true identity: James Blair.
Blair, who apparently never left his home in nearby Pass Christian when Katrina raged ashore, was one of 97 people killed in Harrison County, coroner Gary Hargrove said. Another man, buried alongside Blair a year ago as "Strength," is the only one of those who hasn't yet been identified.
Those names, "Will" and "Strength," were meant to represent the will of the community to come back and the strength to come together. The grave markers left included identifying features that Hargrove hoped might catch the attention of someone visiting Evergreen Cemetery and help authorities give one more family closure.
DNA samples taken from Blair's two sons, along with the details one son gave about his dad — the dentures, amputated two fingers, physical description — led to his identification a few months ago, Hargrove said.
Blair was born Raymond Wallace but had changed his name. His two sons were expected to be at the Wednesday service.
Hargrove said he has no leads as to the true identity of "Strength," a black man, 25 to 35 years old, with a tattoo on his left forearm that read "Love Jones." He was found in Biloxi, but Hargrove said that given the storm surge, he cannot say that was his hometown.
"I still work today on Strength's case, going through files, looking for information, and every chance I get, I get it to the public," he said.