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Recent Floods Lend New Weight To Hurricane Katrina Anniversary

Tegan Wendland
Councilwoman Susan Guidry, clarinetist Michael White and Mayor Mitch Landrieu laid colorful flower wreaths at the bases of the mausoleum tombs, where 98 bodies that were never identified were laid to rest.

On this eleventh anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, officials gathered to remember the dead. As WWNO’s Tegan Wendland reports, they held a prayer service and wreath-laying ceremony. This year’s memorial feels especially poignant, as parishes across southern Louisiana reel from devastating floods.

Mayor Mitch Landrieu and several city council members were flanked by brass musicians and drummers in a somber procession placed colorful floral wreaths at the base of the mausoleums at the Hurricane Katrina Memorial. It’s in the Historic Charity Hospital Cemetery in Mid City, and opened in 2008, when 98 unidentified bodies were finally laid to rest.

Officials honored them, and the nearly 2,000 others, who died because of that storm.

City coroner, Jeffrey Rouse, described the shared memories of that day, “Do you remember the ungodly howl of that wind? The pit in your stomach when you saw that water rising on your street? The chill when you heard the levees were breached?”

Families across Louisiana have felt the dread of rising water in recent weeks. At least 100,000 homes were flooded and thousands have been displaced.

Councilman Jared Brossett called on New Orleanians to stand in solidarity and continue to volunteer and support recovery efforts in those flooded communities. “We recommit to ourselves that we will continue to be each other’s keeper and work with each other…there’s light at the end of the tunnel,” said Brossett.

Mayor Landrieu echoed Brossett’s call to action. He recognized the volunteers who died in a car accident over the weekend on their way to help those in Baton Rouge. “A natural disaster or a manmade disaster takes a life and then many people do what is necessary which is to step up to the plate and give life - by doing whatever you can to make sure that people have what they need. That is what we require of each other,” said Landrieu.

He stood in the center of the memorial, which is in the shape of the eye of the storm and has giant plaques describing the disaster that followed.

Funeral director Sandra Rhodes Duncan helped create the memorial. She lost her entire home during the storm and says she feels for the people of Baton Rouge, and what they’ve lost. “It’s so personal. When I went home it was like it wiped my whole life out. I had to go back and regroup and be like, ‘well I’m still here, my family’s still here,’” said Duncan.

The tone also included a reminder that Louisiana is by no means alone in its vulnerability. Councilwoman Susan Guidry said that after Katrina, some in Congress didn’t see the point in rebuilding New Orleans. But she said that since the storm many cities have been devastated by extreme weather events.

Guidry said, “They’ve learned that a hurricane can do a one-two punch to two northern states and create as much havoc. In the Midwest, in a sleepy little city with a river that’s always run through it and been a pleasure for it - they’ve learned that that river can swamp their city and they can need the same kind of help that we needed, even though they don’t live in a bowl and they don’t live near an ocean.”

But for Duncan, it’s more personal. She spoke directly to those displaced in Baton Rouge. “Don’t give up. Do not give up. The whole earth might break up tomorrow but you just don’t give up. Home is home is home.”

Whether that home is New Orleans, Baton Rouge, Lafayette, or anywhere in-between, she understands what it means to fight for it.

Support for WWNO’s Coastal Desk comes from the Greater New Orleans Foundation, the Coypu Foundation, and the Walton Family Foundation.

Tegan has reported on the coast for WWNO since 2015. In this role she has covered a wide range of issues and subjects related to coastal land loss, coastal restoration, and the culture and economy of Louisiana’s coastal zone, with a focus on solutions and the human dimensions of climate change. Her reporting has been aired nationally on Planet Money, Reveal, All Things Considered, Morning Edition, Marketplace, BBC, CBC and other outlets. She’s a recipient of the Pulitzer Connected Coastlines grant, CUNY Resilience Fellowship, Metcalf Fellowship, and countless national and regional awards.

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