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Newest Navy ship commissioned in New Orleans

With the blaring of cannons, the Navy commissioned the USS New Orleans before thousands of onlookers Saturday, marking the first time since at least World War II a Navy ship has been built and christened in its namesake city.

“May God bless and guide this warship and all who sail on her,” the secretary of the Navy, Donald C. Winter, said before hundreds of sailors — in crisp, white uniforms — ran onto the ship to set the traditional first watch and to salute those in the celebratory crowd below.

The $1.3 billion USS New Orleans is the fourth ship to bear the New Orleans name. The last one was an amphibious assault vessel that served during the Vietnam War and in the Persian Gulf during Operation Desert Storm. It was decommissioned in 1997 and is slated to be sunk for gunnery practice.

It took about five years to build this ship, including a months-long interruption in construction due to Hurricane Katrina. The work was completed Monday.

“We are proud of this city and proud of this ship,” Mayor Ray Nagin said. “We both survived Katrina.”

The commissioning was a point of pride for Petty Officer 1st Class Robert Greene, a 36-year-old San Diego native who decommissioned the last USS New Orleans and helped prepare this one for its unveiling near the French Quarter Saturday.

“There’s only four ships with this name, and I served on two. That’s pretty unique,” Greene said as he prepared equipment on the flight deck of the ship earlier in the week. “I really wanted to serve on this ship.”

The ship, built at Northrop Grumman Ship Systems in Avondale, is about a dozen stories high and takes up the length of about two French Quarter blocks. It has state-of-the-art communications systems, a post office, two gyms, a convenience store and pharmacy, a hospital and dental office and sleeping quarters with lockers for up to 800 Marines, which the ship could transport in times such as war, and a crew of 360.

Ensign Ashleigh Teitel said she couldn’t have asked for a better assignment than serving on the USS New Orleans: The Long Island, N.Y., native was in her senior year at the New York Maritime Academy when Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast on Aug. 29, 2005.

Within days of Katrina’s landfall, Teitel helped load food, water, clean linens and supplies onto ships in New York that were headed to New Orleans.

“For me personally, for all of us who have been a part of this commissioning, it’s an honor,” she said. “I know what this ship means to this city.”

References to the ship’s namesake city can be found throughout the vessel. There’s a Big Easy Cafe, a Carnival doubloon contained in a small display case and a musket ball from the Chalmette Battlefield, the site of the 1815 Battle of New Orleans.

The banner for the ship’s newspaper is The Big Easy Bugle, and NOLA, or “November Oscar Lima Alpha” in the international maritime phonetic alphabet, is the ship’s call name.

Free public tours were given during the week. Joel Gray, of Rochester, Minn., and his wife were in line Thursday for more than an hour for a walk-through.

“You look at it and wonder how all that stuff fits in there,” he said. “It was worth it. It was really cool.”

The USS New Orleans will leave New Orleans Monday for Pascagoula, Miss., and will eventually head to its home port of San Diego.