NEW ORLEANS – Prayers, protests and a lingering disgust with the government's response to Hurricane Katrina marked the disaster's second anniversary Wednesday, with a presidential visit doing little to mollify those still displaced by the storm.
Clarence Russ, 64, took a dim view of politicians' promises as he tried to put the finishing touches on his repaired home in the city's devastated Lower 9th Ward.
"There was supposed to be all this money, but where'd it go? None of us got any," said Russ, whose house was the only restored home on an otherwise desolate block.
Not far away, President Bush visited a school. "We're still paying attention. We understand," he said before heading to the Mississippi Gulf Coast, also devastated by Katrina.
But Gina Martin, who is still living in Houston after Katrina destroyed her New Orleans home, was unconvinced. "Bush was down here again making more promises he isn't going to keep. The government has failed all of us. It's got to stop," she said.
Martin was among an estimated 1,000 people taking part in a protest march that started in the Lower 9th Ward. It was a uniquely New Orleans-style protest: There were signs accusing the Bush administration of murder and angry chants about the failure of government. But marchers also danced in the street accompanied by two brass bands.
By the time the water dried up weeks later, more than 1,600 people across Louisiana and Mississippi were dead, and a shocked nation saw miles of wrecked homes, mud and debris from one of the worst natural disasters in its history.
In New Orleans, recovery has been spotty at best. The historic French Quarter and neighborhoods close to the Mississippi River did not flood and have bounced back fairly well. The city's population has reached an estimated 277,000, about 60 percent its pre-storm level of 455,000. Sales tax revenues are approaching normal, and tourism and the port industry are recovering.
But vast stretches of the city show little or no recovery. A housing shortage and high rents have hampered business growth. The homeless population has almost doubled since the storm, and many of those squat in an estimated 80,000 vacant dwellings. Violent crime is also on the rise, and the National Guard and state troopers still supplement a diminished local police force.
Bells pealed amid prayers, song and tears at the groundbreaking for a planned Katrina memorial at a New Orleans cemetery.
"We ring the bells for a city that is in recovery, that is struggling, that is performing miracles on a daily basis," said Mayor Ray Nagin, who famously cursed the federal response in a radio interview days after the storm.
The memorial will be the final resting place for more than two dozen unclaimed bodies.
"The saddest thing I've seen here is that there are 30 human beings who will be buried here one day that nobody ever called about," David Kopra, a volunteer from Olympia, Wash., said, holding back tears. "It says something to my heart. This city needs so much care, and that's why I'm here."
Churches throughout the region, including historic St. Louis Cathedral in the French Quarter, held services. At the Claiborne Avenue bridge over the Industrial Canal, mourners tossed a wreath into the water near the spot where a levee breach led to the inundation of the Lower 9th Ward.
In Mississippi, about 100 people prayed and sang in the shadow of a Katrina monument on the neatly manicured town green of Biloxi.
"God has been good to Biloxi and its people of the Mississippi Gulf Coast," Mayor A.J. 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."
In Gulfport, Miss., Gov. Haley Barbour urged people to see the positive. About 13,000 of his state's families are still living in FEMA trailers, but that's down from a peak of 48,000, and he expects they could all be out of the temporary housing in a year.
Some let the day pass without fanfare. James Chaney, working on his sister's washed-out house in New Orleans, had no use for the protesters.
"They've done that stuff and done that stuff. It doesn't help us. It doesn't get us anything. It doesn't get anyone to help us."