Sign of Katrina Fatigue? Storm Memorial Delayed

John Moreno Gonzales, AP, July 13, 2008

Between acres of aboveground tombs that are this marshy city’s way to inter the dead, there is a strip of land that is an empty tribute to the victims of Hurricane Katrina.

Unknown to most in town, including the relatives of those who died in the storm, it is the chosen site for a memorial to an estimated 1,600 fatalities, and will serve as the resting place for 85 bodies that remain unclaimed nearly three years after the disaster. During a second-anniversary ceremony, Mayor Ray Nagin shed a tear, gave $1 million in taxpayer money to the project, and delegated management to a city coroner intent on a monument that would double as a warning to be better prepared for the next hurricane.

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But nine months later, what could have been an inspiring focal point for New Orleans has dissolved into a project that is forgotten, frustrated and delayed—much like the Katrina recovery itself. Some say a lack of follow-up by the mayor is the cause, but [Coroner Frank] Minyard places the blame on his own overburdened office, and the fatigue of a scattered city that had its share of problems long before the levees failed.

Few expect the monument to be built by the target date of Aug. 29, Katrina’s third anniversary.

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Some families are so overwhelmed by the storm, or were so troubled before it, that they have declined to pick up the bodies of relatives. The corner’s office says 54 of the 85 unclaimed have been positively identified. But family members have either been lost in the massive relocation Katrina triggered, or decided to leave burial to the coroner because they were estranged from the deceased when the storm hit.

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New Orleans has seen an estimated 67 percent of its population return since the 2005 disaster that submerged 80 percent of town. But government statistics indicate many are not original inhabitants, with up to 200,000 pre-Katrina residents forwarding U.S. Mail to other parts of the country a year after the storm.

With the dislocation, there is no organized group of surviving family members to push for a memorial, as was seen after the 2001 World Trade Center attacks. Residents and activists have focused on the challenges of the living.

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Minyard’s office shouldered the memorial project after organizing some 900 Katrina-related autopsies, and helping investigate 3,000 missing person’s reports. The city coroner has now become a repository for one of the worst per-capita murder rates in the country, with 209 killed in 2007 and 95 killed so far this year.

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Minyard is unsure how many plaques will be displayed, because defining a Katrina-related fatality carries legal ramifications, affects life insurance policies and public aid. Some drowned, some died from exposure, and others died weeks later from apparent physical stress during the evacuation. State health department statistics show blacks were 53 percent of fatalities and whites were 39 percent—many of them over the age of 65.

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