Katrina victim laid to rest, 2 years later

GULFPORT, Miss. (AP) - For nearly a year, he was known simply as "Will," one of two unidentified Hurricane Katrina victims buried in coastal Harrison County. On Wednesday, two years after the roiling waters of the storm stole his life, he was remembered by his real name: James Blair.

A gray granite marker bearing his name was unveiled at the foot of his grave. It also reads, in part: "May he continue to represent the 'will' of south Mississippi."

Two of Blair's sons fought back tears during a ceremony on the anniversary of Katrina. They had searched shelters and followed false leads until DNA evidence identified their father a few months ago.

"Seeing everybody here today certainly does help," son Charles Blair, of Cleveland, Ga., said after the service. "Knowing how the community felt, it makes closure so much easier."

About 60 people attended the spare service, where mourners hummed or sang as the country-gospel hymn "Peace in the Valley," played on a priest's iPod.

It was one of several gatherings along the Gulf Coast to remember the monster storm blamed in the deaths of more than 1,600 in Louisiana and Mississippi. President Bush and wife Laura appeared before the backdrop of a rebuilt bridge in Bay St. Louis, Miss.

In Biloxi, about 100 people prayed and sang on the neatly manicured town green in the shadow of a Katrina monument. Mayor A.J. Holloway said he is grateful for how far his city has come and proud of its people, and prayers were offered for the victims of the storm and for the future.

"God has been good to Biloxi and its people of the Mississippi Gulf Coast," Holloway said, as the Gulf's water, barely a block away, rippled gently. "We have a new outlook on life and a new appreciation for what's really important in life. It's not your car or your clothes or your possessions.

"It's being alive and knowing the importance of family and friends and knowing that we all have a higher power," he said.

Signs of the devastation remain among the scattered signs of hope. Along the coastal highway, most of the twisted metal, concrete and other storm debris has been cleared, leaving vacant, grassy lots in many places where stately century-old homes once overlooked the white sand beaches.

In some places, front porch steps lead to nowhere and high-rise condominiums have sprung up where homes and businesses used to stand. About 13,000 families are still in government-issued trailers.

Casinos are a major driver of Biloxi's economy - music from the Hard Rock hotel and casino could be heard during the morning service - and city leaders hope their presence in the community will attract new investment, particularly among smaller, mom-and-pop-type hotels and restaurants.

"We had a long way to go, but we're coming back," Holloway said, while acknowledging that doesn't mean Katrina will be forgotten.

"I don't think we'll ever get over it," he said.

At the Evergreen Garden Cemetery in Gulfport, as James Blair's family was saying goodbye to the drowning victim, the grave next to his remained marked as "Strength," the 97th known victim of Katrina in Harrison County and the only one still not identified, coroner Gary Hargrove said. Eleven people also are listed as missing.

Blair's sons said they thought he'd evacuated his home at 1 Hurricane Circle in Pass Christian, especially after having lived through destructive Hurricane Camille in 1969, but that they never got a call from him after Katrina. A search of shelters by his son, Robert Wallace, and grandson in the aftermath turned up little more than false hope. It wasn't until a few months ago, when a frustrated Charles Blair showed up at Hargrove's office and gave a description of his dad that fit the details on the headstone for "Will," that closure was within reach.

After DNA testing, "Will" was positively identified as Blair, who was also known as Raymond Wallace. Robert Wallace was given his father's watch, which had stopped just minutes before 5 a.m. It's all they have left, he said.

"We're doing our grieving now," Wallace said.

Hargrove said he has no leads on the identity of "Strength," a black man, believed to have been 25 to 35 years old, with a tattoo on his left forearm that read "Love Jones." He was found in Biloxi, but Hargrove said that given the storm surge, he cannot say that was his hometown.

"I still work today on Strength's case, going through files, looking for information, and every chance I get, I get it to the public," he said.