New Orleans Prayers, protests and a lingering disgust with the government's response to Hurricane Katrina marked the disaster's second anniversary Wednesday, with a presidential visit doing little to mollify those still displaced by the storm.
Clarence Russ, 64, took a dim view of politicians' promises as he tried to put the finishing touches on his repaired home in the city's devastated Lower Ninth Ward.
"There was supposed to be all this money, but where'd it go? None of us got any," said Russ, whose house was the only restored home on an otherwise desolate block.
Not far away, President Bush visited a school. "We're still paying attention. We understand," he said before heading to the Mississippi Gulf Coast, also devastated by Katrina.
"My attitude is this: New Orleans, better days are ahead," Bush said. "It's sometimes hard for people to see progress when you live in a community all the time. And it's easy to think about what it was like when we first came here after the hurricane, and what it's like today. And this town is coming back. This town is better today than it was yesterday, and it's going to be better tomorrow than it was today."
But Gina Martin, who is still living in Houston after Katrina destroyed her New Orleans home, was unconvinced. "Bush was down here again making more promises he isn't going to keep. The government has failed all of us. It's got to stop," she said.
Martin was among an estimated 1,000 people taking part in a protest march that started in the Lower Ninth Ward. It was a uniquely New Orleans-style protest: There were signs accusing the Bush administration of murder and angry chants about the failure of government. But marchers also danced in the street accompanied by two brass bands.
Katrina was a powerful Category 3 hurricane when it hit the Gulf Coast the morning of Aug. 29, 2005, broke through levees in New Orleans and flooded 80 percent of the city.
By the time the water dried up weeks later, nearly 1,700 people across Louisiana and Mississippi were dead, and a shocked nation saw miles of wrecked homes, mud and debris from one of the worst natural disasters in its history.
In New Orleans, recovery has been spotty at best. The historic French Quarter and neighborhoods close to the Mississippi River did not flood and have bounced back fairly well. The city's population has reached an estimated 277,000, about 60 percent its pre-storm level of 455,000. Sales tax revenues are approaching normal, and tourism and the port industry are recovering.
But vast stretches of the city show little or no recovery. A housing shortage and high rents have hampered business growth. The homeless population has almost doubled since the storm, and many of those squat in an estimated 80,000 vacant dwellings. Violent crime is also on the rise, and the National Guard and state troopers still supplement a diminished local police force.
Bush, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin and Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco all have drawn harsh criticism in the storm's aftermath. Blanco, who appeared with the president at the Ninth Ward school, opted not to run for re-election this year after polls showed her popularity at rock bottom.
Bells pealed amid prayers, song and tears at the groundbreaking for a planned Katrina memorial at a New Orleans cemetery.
"We ring the bells for a city that is in recovery, that is struggling, that is performing miracles on a daily basis," said Nagin, who famously cursed the federal response in a radio interview days after the storm.
The memorial will be the final resting place for more than two dozen unclaimed bodies.
"The saddest thing I've seen here is that there are 30 human beings who will be buried here one day that nobody ever called about," David Kopra, a volunteer from Olympia, Wash., said, holding back tears. "It says something to my heart. This city needs so much care, and that's why I'm here."