- Associated Press - Sunday, August 29, 2010

NEW ORLEANS | Gulf Coast residents tried to put Hurricane Katrina behind them Sunday, marking its fifth anniversary by casting wreaths into the water to remember the hundreds killed.

But part of the catastrophe lives on, in abandoned homes still bearing spray-painted circles indicating they had been searched and whether bodies were found inside.

President Obama joined those hailing the recovery made so far in New Orleans, which he said has become a “symbol of resilience and community.” In a neighborhood that has seen little of that recovery, the Lower 9th Ward, it was the failures that seemed more apparent to residents.

“It don’t seem like much is getting done,” said Charlene LaFrance, a 42-year-old teacher who watched commemoration events on Claiborne Avenue. Brass bands played dirges and marches and politicians spoke about the nation’s failure to do enough to rebuild New Orleans, in particular the Lower 9th Ward, which was devastated when the floodwall on the Industrial Canal toppled over and unleashed a wall of water that knocked scores of homes off their foundations.

Many of the more than 1,800 people killed by Katrina died in the Lower 9th Ward, and only about a quarter of the 5,400 homes there before the storm have been rebuilt.

“This is hallowed ground now,” said Marc Morial, a former New Orleans mayor and the president of the National Urban League.

He told a jubilant crowd that the Lower 9th Ward can be rebuilt. “All it needs is decent, strong levees that don’t break.”

The Army Corps of Engineers is nearing completion on a levee system for New Orleans that the agency says should be able to withstand a Katrinalike storm once it is finished next summer. The Lower 9th Ward is now protected by a massive, damlike structure.

Mr. Obama, speaking at Xavier University, cited progress made in the recovery but added that there are still too many vacant lots, too many people unemployed and “too many New Orleanians who have not been able to come home.” The recession and the Gulf oil spill have made it even tougher for the area to bounce back, he said.

“My administration is going to stand with you and fight alongside you until the job is done,” he pledged.

Ceremonies also were held in Mississippi, where at least 175 people were killed by the storm. In Biloxi, U.S. Rep. Gene Taylor compared the Gulf Coast to the area’s oak trees - scarred by the storm but strong enough to survive.

At a marble wall in Shell Beach, La., honoring the 163 people killed in coastal St. Bernard Parish, more than 100 people braved Sunday’s soggy weather as parish officials read aloud the victims’ names.

Diane Phillips, who lost two cousins and several friends in the storm, volunteered to lay a wreath in the bayou. Some wiped away tears as the wreath floated away.

“You think of the whole entire parish and everything that we lost that day and everything that we’ve brought back since then,” said Ms. Phillips, 51, of Hopedale.

In the Lower 9th Ward, a parade marched to the top of a large rusty bridge over the Industrial Canal, where a wreath was thrown in honor of the dead.

Alan Drake, a 57-year-old engineer who joined the march in solidarity, lives in the Lower Garden District, a neighborhood on the “sliver by the river” that did not flood.

“We are finally past the part of major rebuilding in large parts of the city,” Mr. Drake said. “But we’re certainly not over the hump here.”

Even as the region struggled to put despair behind it, hardship struck again this year in the form of the BP oil spill. New Orleans’ economy, heavily dependent on tourism and the oil and gas industry, was set back anew.

Standing in front of a large American flag with students arrayed behind him, Mr. Obama boasted of his administration’s efforts to respond to the Gulf spill, saying one of his promises- to stop the leak - has been kept.

But the speech didn’t offer any new plans for restoring the Gulf, bringing New Orleans’ fast-disappearing wetlands back to life or cleaning up BP’s spilled oil. Some residents had hoped Mr. Obama would take the opportunity to announce an early end to the deepwater drilling moratorium he enacted after the spill. But he made no mention of the moratorium, which people here say is costing jobs.