Katrina Victims Are Buried, 3 Years After

Work continues on the Hurricane Katrina memorial in New Orleans, Thursday, Aug. 21, 2008. The land was vacant just five weeks ago and workers are rushing to complete the memorial by the third anniversary of the hurricane, which is Friday. (AP Photo/Bill Haber)
AP Photo/Bill Haber
The unclaimed bodies of close to 80 victims of Hurricane Katrina have finally been entombed - nearly three years after the storm - by a group of funeral home owners who said they took it upon themselves to inter the remains because they felt the city and coroner's office were too slow to do so.

Workers scrambled to complete the memorial by Friday's third anniversary of the storm on what was vacant land just five weeks ago. Six mausoleums make up part of the memorial located at the end of a historic streetcar line.

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, half of whom were at least 75 years old, according to a new report.

C.C. Johnson, a mortician at Littlejohn Funeral Home, said the remains were entombed Thursday.

Seven bodies remain unburied. They are to be carried to the site on Friday during a jazz funeral that will be part of the dedication.

The memorial itself, bucolic and shaped like the eye of a hurricane, may or may not be fully complete when they arrive.

"We're playing everything by ear. We'll sit down with a big sigh of relief, whenever and however it's completed," said Coroner Frank Minyard. He said obstacles as slight as a day of rain could cause the deadline to be missed.

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."

Remembering The Forgotten

Mayor Ray Nagin allotted $1 million in federal aid money to the effort during last-year's 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.

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."

Skittish About Gustav

It was three years ago Friday that Katrina slammed into New Orleans, its storm surge blasted through the levees that protect the city, killing 1,800 people. Eighty percent of the city was flooded.

Though pockets of the New Orleans are well on the way to recovery, many neighborhoods have struggled to recover. Many residents still live in temporary trailers, and shuttered homes still bear the "X" that was painted to help rescue teams looking for the dead.

(AP Photo/Bill Haber)
(Left: Steps that once led to a home in the Lower 9th Ward in New Orleans, approximately 200 feet from where a floodwall broke, are all that remain, Aug. 4, 2008.)

Many people never returned, and the city's population, around 310,000 people, is roughly two-thirds what it was before the storm, though various estimates vary wildly.

Now residents in New Orleans and all along the Gulf Coast are keeping a nervous eye on Gustav as it barrels through the Caribbean.

CBS News correspondent Kathryn Brown reports that tropical storm is expected to grow into a major hurricane before taking aim at the U.S.

Gustav already left a path of devastation across Haiti and the Dominican Republic where 23 people died in flooding and landslides. It's expected to take direct aim at the Cayman Islands before heading into the Gulf of Mexico where it could strengthen into a major hurricane.

Sean Pittman of the lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans is still cleaning up his house from Katrina's floods. With the levee right across the street, he's now nervous, and told CBS News correspondent Hari Sreenivasan that he doesn't have faith the levee would hold in another storm.

"No, no. I don't trust them," he said.