Overcoming tragedy

NEW ORLEANS – Clarence Russ marked the second anniversary of Hurricane Katrina by scrubbing away at the big black “X” spray-painted on his Lower 9th Ward home _ the seemingly indelible mark left in September 2005 by authorities making a house-by-house search for bodies.”I hope to be living here again in two weeks and I want to forget as much as I can of that storm, that whole time,” Russ, 64, said as he rubbed away at the mark with a cleaning solvent. “I don’t want to commemorate it. I want to forget it.”

That will be hard to do. Russ will be the only resident in his block when he moves back. For miles around him there are still damaged, empty houses sitting on weed-choked lots, filled with mold and debris and emblazoned with a grim symbol: a giant X forming four quadrants, each filled with numbers and symbols indicating the date searched, the agency that did the search, whether the house was entered, and the number of corpses were found.

“It’s a sad city now,” Russ said. “All our friends are gone. It’s just us and a bunch of ghosts down here.”

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.

Katrina was a powerful Category 3 hurricane when it hit the Gulf Coast the morning of Aug. 29, 2005, broke through levees in New Orleans and flooded 80 percent of the city.

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.

Bush, Mayor Ray Nagin and Gov. Kathleen Blanco all have drawn harsh criticism in the storm’s aftermath. Blanco, who appeared with Bush at the 9th Ward school, opted not to run for re-election this year after polls showed her popularity at rock bottom.

Blanco issued a news release Wednesday afternoon saying that during Bush’s visit she asked him to, among other things, cut through red tape that she said has delayed the distribution of federal aid and to withdraw his threatened veto of a federal water resources bill that she said would help strengthen Louisiana levees and close a controversial navigation channel that some blame for exacerbating Katrina’s floods.