In a shipyard in New Orleans, survivors of one disaster are building a monument to another.
In a city still emerging from the floods of Hurricane Katrina, a ship has begun to rise from the ashes of the September 11 terrorist attacks.
Bringing together America’s two great calamities of the 21st century, the USS New York is being built in New Orleans with 24 tons of steel taken from the collapsed World Trade Centre.
There is no shortage of scrap metal in New Orleans these days, but the girders taken from Ground Zero have been treated with a reverence usually accorded to religious relics. After a brief ceremony in 2003, about seven tons of steel were melted down and poured into a cast to make the bow section of the ship’s hull.
Some shipworkers say the hairs stood up on the backs of their necks the first time they touched it. Others have postponed their retirement so they can be part of the project.
One worker, Tony Quaglino, said: “I was going to go in October 2004 after 40 years here, but I put it off when I found out I could be working on New York. This is sacred and it makes me very proud.” Glen Clement, a paint superintendent, said: “Nobody passes by that bow section without knocking on it. Everybody knows what it is made from and what it’s about.”
The ship is being built by Northrop Grumman on the banks of the Mississippi. It should be ready to join the US Navy in 2007.
Later vessels in its class will include USS Arlington — named after the section of the Pentagon that was also hit by an airliner on September 11 — and USS Somerset, in memory of United Flight 93, which crashed in a field in Somerset County, Pennsylvania, on the same day as passengers struggled with al-Qaeda hijackers.
Mr Clement said it would be fitting if USS New York’s first mission was to capture Osama bin Laden. He said: “They hit us first, but out of a tragedy a good thing has come, in that we’re building a ship which can help take those people out.”
The $1 billion vessel is one of a new generation of amphibious assault ships capable of landing a 700-strong Marines assault force on a coastline almost anywhere without the need for a port.
Woody Oge, Northrop Grumman’s director of operations in New Orleans, was keen to play down suggestions that the ship might be used to spearhead invasions.
He pointed out that LPD vessels had been used as much for humanitarian assistance as for war. One such ship, USS Boxer, was dispatched to help to deal with the aftermath of Katrina.
Although the hurricane smashed its way through the shipyard last summer, the half-completed New York survived intact. The same cannot be said for the homes of some of its builders. About 200 are still living at the shipyard in the hastily set up “Camp Katrina”.
They include Earl Jones. More than eight months after Katrina, he does not know if his home in the Lower Ninth ward will be rebuilt. “The insurance company won’t even talk to us,” he said. “We’re having to hire lawyers to chase ’em. I don’t like this, but I don’t want to be out of work.”
Mr Jones’s wife was evacuated to Baton Rouge and is seriously ill with breast cancer and pneumonia. He said: “She ain’t handling very well me being away all the time.”
Katrina and 9/11 are two disasters that continue to produce very different responses from America. Mr Jones does not want his old home enshrined in a $1 billion fighting machine, but a small cheque from the insurance firm might help.
USS New York, USS Arlington and USS Somerset will be part of a nine-vessel fleet of new amphibious transport ships
Length: 208.5m (684ft) — more than twice as long as the Statue of Liberty
Beam: 31.9m (105ft); weight: 24,900 tonnes; speed: 22 knots
Equipment: helicopters, landing craft, amphibious vehicles, missile launchers
Crew: more than 1,000, comprising 361 ship’s company plus 699 marines