Battered Mississippi honors its Katrina dead, looks to recovery

Published 6:36 pm Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Mississippians along the battered Gulf Coast marked the first anniversary of Hurricane Katrina on Tuesday by mourning the dead, thanking legions of volunteers and celebrating what progress has been made on the long road to recovery.

Across the 70-mile coast, workers and families gathered for tearful remembrances. But there was also celebration. The $800 million Beau Rivage casino in Biloxi, one of more than a dozen casinos battered by the storm, reopened with 3,800 employees — 400 more than before Katrina.

The hurricane’s wind and water killed nearly 1,600 people in Louisiana, 231 in Mississippi and two in Alabama. It obliterated whole communities, including the tiny Mississippi town of Waveland.

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From Bay St. Louis to Pascagoula, stately waterfront homes were swept away by a wall of water, as were more modest homes and apartments blocks inland. Katrina also gutted a dozen glitzy casinos and propelled several of the hulking barges ashore.

A year later, most of the debris is gone and humid air is filled with sounds of recovery.

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.

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said the nation is grateful that coast residents chose to rebuild their communities “bigger and better” after Katrina.

“It’s hard to think about what it was like a year ago when that very tranquil sea rose up and became a mighty fist that crushed miles along this coast and killed dozens and dozens of people,” Chertoff said.

Gov. Haley Barbour thanked the thousands of volunteers who have aided the area, as well as the federal government.

“There’s nothing as important and nothing that gives me as much confidence and optimism as the spirit of the people who live on our Gulf Coast,” Barbour said in Biloxi.

In a Gulfport park overlooking the Mississippi Sound, 500 gathered for an early morning memorial service to honor the 14 people who died in the city during the storm. Firefighters, police and paramedics carried red roses to the front of the stage and placed them in a vase to mark each victim.

Gulfport Mayor Brent Warr read out the name of each victim. At each name, an emergency worker saluted and a bell was struck.

Carolyn Bozzetti, 60, the daughter of one of the dead, had moved to Houston after her home was destroyed but returned for the service. Her father, Barney Anderson, 83, died when he and his ailing wife stayed to ride out the storm. Anderson’s wife was traumatized but survived the storm.

“I’m hoping this is a step forward,” Bozzetti said as she clutched a rose Tuesday. “I’ve been crying for a year. I’m tired of crying.”

At a city-owned cemetery in Gulfport, the two anonymous storm victims were to be buried side-by-side in matching silver caskets. A priest, a rabbi and a minister will join in leading the graveside service since authorities don’t know the men’s religious faiths.

Although their identities are a mystery, the men won’t be buried without names. Gary Hargrove, the coroner for the coast’s most populous county, said their graves soon will have markers that, along with their physical descriptions, identify them as “Will” and “Strength.”

“’Will’ represents the will of the people to move on. ’Strength’ represents the strength of the people to rebuild together,” said Hargrove, whose jurisdiction in Harrison County includes Gulfport and Biloxi.

Hargrove is keeping samples of their DNA in hopes that one day a match can be made and “I’ll be able to return them to their families.”

In Waveland, the memorial service was followed by an afternoon parade that Mayor Tommy Longo said was one way to “celebrate life.”

“We’re showing our appreciation to the volunteers and faith-based organizations that have been here for the last year, helping us,” Longo said.

For some, Tuesday was just another day.

Roy Lay, 71, of Gulf Breeze, Fla., busy helping a friend rebuild a home in Bay St. Louis, didn’t realize it was the anniversary until a neighbor told him to listen for church bells and sirens to mark the occasion.

“I’m not too sentimental,” Lay said as he wiped away sweat with a towel. “I knew it was about a year, but I didn’t know for sure it was today.”

Kelly Coffelt, 25, knew Tuesday was the anniversary but said “It’s not anything to celebrate.”

Coffelt, now holding down three jobs and living in Gulfport, had lived in Waveland with her grandparents and younger brother before Katrina destroyed their home.

She had hoped her grandparents could return but they couldn’t afford to rebuild and must wait on grant money.

“I thought my grandma would be back by now,” she said.