Six mausoleums for the unclaimed dead of Hurricane Katrina stand on what was vacant land just five weeks ago, as New Orleans — in what could be a testament to its determination — scrambles to complete a memorial by Friday's third anniversary of the storm.
Many believed the fatigued city would have no place to inter the 85 bodies. The city coroner, already grappling with one of the nation's worst murder rates, was placed in charge of the $1.2 million effort last year and progress was slow. The inactivity was seen as another example of the sluggish climate that has characterized the city's rebuilding from the 2005 storm that killed 1,600 people.
Now Coroner Frank Minyard says at least seven of the dead will be marched to the site during a traditional New Orleans jazz funeral. The memorial itself, bucolic and shaped like the eye of a hurricane, may or may not be fully complete when they arrive.
'Playing everything by ear'
"We're playing everything by ear. We'll sit down with a big sigh of relief, whenever and however it's completed," said Minyard. He said obstacles as slight as a day of rain could cause the deadline to be missed.
Mayor Ray Nagin allotted $1 million in federal aid money to the effort during second-anniversary ceremonies, and although about $200,000 in private donations also came in, the project was largely forgotten.
But in the past several weeks, construction permits have been issued and topsoil cleared. Human bone fragments have been recovered and meticulously documented, according to state regulations, from the old Charity Hospital site that formerly was a paupers' graveyard.
New Orleans jazz trumpeter Irvin Mayfield Jr., whose father drowned in the storm, said the city's decision to honor the forgotten victims of Katrina shows its spirit.
"These folks get to be mourned, get to be remembered, and get to be honored," he said. "It speaks volumes."
Fifty-four of the 85 bodies have been identified. Some have gone unclaimed because family members have been lost in the massive relocation Katrina triggered. Or they have decided to leave burial to the coroner because they were either too poor, or were too estranged from the deceased, to do so themselves.
Plaques with the names of the storm victims were supposed to be part of the memorial. But Minyard is unsure if that will still be built. 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.
Ted George, a New Orleans lawyer who has worked pro bono on the project, said he is confident plaques will come after project coordinators look more closely at records. George said whether the memorial is completed Friday, or later, Minyard and others should be given credit for getting this far.
Not only were there the physical barriers to construction, but the city had to prove to Louisiana State University, which owned and donated the grounds, there would be perpetual care at the site. About $250,000 was placed in an investment fund for the care, George said. The project also has about $150,000 in reserves should unexpected construction costs, or added features to the design surface later.
He said New Orleans has honored its fallen well over the years.
"There's no doubt we have a real sense of history and depth," he said. "What's been really satisfying is so many people believe in this project. They will push it through."