It was difficult to decide which looked more incongruous, the shark on the highway, or the column of Humvee military vehicles patrolling a US city. Above the Veterans Memorial Highway, a drag of low-slung malls and takeaway joints, stretching almost the length of Metairie, a northern district of Jefferson Parish to the east of New Orleans, the sky was alive with Black Hawk military helicopters.
To the west, smoke from a burning store in the downtown area of the city spiralled upwards. A few hundred meters across the highway, US coastguards from three states patrolled Lake Pontchartrain. It was this lake which on Monday night poured through a 100m gap in the levee protecting New Orleans' 17th Street, causing a mini tsunami to engulf much of the city.
By Friday last week, the waters had receded on either side of the Veterans Highway, revealing buildings reduced to little more than matchsticks.
ILLUSTRATION: YU SHA
It was here that six members of the National Guard stared down at a dead nurse shark lying by the side of the highway, its skin blistering in the heat and mouth agape as if stunned by how it met its demise, washed up on the streets of New Orleans.
They stared as giant six-wheeler trucks towing water and gas canisters rolled past, dwarfing the mortuary vans and ambulances snaking between them.
They are scenes of surreal and violent abnormality that, in barely five days, the US has been forced to become familiar with as it confronts its worst natural disaster in the shape of Hurricane Katrina. Scenes that have forced the US into its deepest moment of national introspection since 9/11 as it has been forced to ask: How could this have happened to a US city, and why did the relief efforts go so badly wrong?
"It's not what you expect it to be like after a hurricane," says John Leston, a 35-year-old barman, now without a bar to run."It's like a virus or something. It's like 28 Days Later."
Leston sports a lobster tan over his multiple tattoos, the result of a 16km trek to get military rations earlier in the week. The trip had been largely unproductive. The information Leston was given had been wrong. The radio said one thing, the army another, emergency services something else.
The only certainty was that no one in New Orleans really had a clue as to what was happening. It was chaos. With US$400 in his pocket, Leston was to eventually make it out of the city by hitching rides.
He wound up at Baton Rouge airport, where he fed on free pizza, wondering how he would find the extra US$300 needed for a flight to his relatives in New Jersey. Yards away from Leston lay Paul, just turned 87. He flew 67 missions in World War II. Last year he went blind.
Leston was one of the lucky ones. His home district of Metairie was eventually overrun by armed looters. Those left behind were reduced to hiding from the gangs, who waded through waist-high water firing shots indiscriminately.
"They were hauling ATM machines out of stores. It wasn't just basic provisions, it was alcohol, cigarettes, they were taking everything," Leston said.
Yesterday, a massively increased military presence, the result of more than 30,000 members of the National Guard being dispatched to the area, attempted to reclaim the city from the looters.
For all that, amid the 100oC. heat, no sanitation and little power, New Orleans still resembles hell. But amid the agony and destruction, an anger is growing as survivors, relatives and ordinary citizens demand answers to their questions.
Why was New Orleans left so hopelessly undefended against a calamity that has been regularly predicted for decades?
Was the hurricane that swept in from the Gulf of Mexico in any way a consequence of human activity, a deadly symptom of global warming?
Why were the authorities -- from the Federal administration, through specialist disaster relief agencies, to state and city politicians -- so apparently unprepared for the the hurricane and its aftermath?
Why were they so slow to react to the plight of tens of thousands of Americans, even as their fate was being played across TV screens around the world?
Has US President George W. Bush's preoccupation with the war in Iraq distracted him from the welfare of his own citizens and drained resources away from the country?
The horror that has become one of America's most internationally famous cities is a vision that has come to grip an entire nation in shared anger, impotence and shame -- a vision that now carries serious implications for Bush and his administration as each day of delay and incompetence has seen the crisis worsen, and the city increasingly resemble Mogadishu.
The smell in parts of the city is overpowering. Mosquitoes buzz across the fetid water touched with the purple tinge of oil slicks.
One woman told how she saw an alligator emerge from the water and drag a disabled man underneath. Scores of bodies have been seen floating in the ninth ward in the north of the city, where the most serious flooding has occurred.
Lucrece Phillips can't get the images of dead babies, women and men floating along the streets out of her head.
"The rescuers in the boats that picked us up had to push the bodies back with sticks," Phillips said. "And there was this little baby. She looked so perfect and so beautiful. I just wanted to scoop her up and breathe life back into her little lungs. She wasn't bloated or anything, just perfect."
Her neighbors were not as fortunate. "I can still hear them banging on the ceiling for help. I heard them banging and banging, but the water kept rising." Then there was silence.
"I know this storm killed so many people," Phillips told the Times-Picayune, a local paper. "There is no ninth ward no more. No eighth, seventh ward, or east New Orleans. All those people, all of them black people, drowned."
But beyond the sense of horror there is a stronger emotion still -- the growing demand to know why this was allowed to happen, to call to account the officials whose errors allowed New Orleans to drown and be abandoned.
In 2002, a chillingly prescient piece of reporting appeared on the science pages of the New York Times. It described the potential impact of a direct strike by a category 5 hurricane on New Orleans.
Quoting extensively from scientists and engineers, it warned that vast sections of the city would be under 6m or more of water.
Worst-case computer predictions showed death tolls in the tens of thousands with many more people trapped by high water that would turn into a toxic sludge.
One of those quoted was Ivor van Heerden, deputy director of the Louisiana State University's Hurricane Center. In a worst-case situation, he said, with incomplete evacuation: "We could have up to 45,000 killed and 400,000 trapped on roofs, with 700,000 evacuees who would now be homeless."
He was more right than wrong. It was not only van Heerden and the New York Times that were sounding the warning. Over the years, because of its development and unique geography, it had become clear New Orleans was an accident waiting to happen, a city that had eaten up its natural marsh defenses over the years, and that was sinking under its own weight.
Indeed, prior to 9/11, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) -- one of the bodies that has drawn the most criticism for the inadequacy of its response in the last week -- had listed a major storm surge on New Orleans and the Gulf Coast as one of the three most likely catastrophic events it might have to cope with, along with a major earthquake on the West Coast and a terrorist attack on New York.
At local level, too, the threat to New Orleans had long been understood. In July last year, federal and state officials ran a simulation exercise to work out what would happen if a category 3 hurricane hit New Orleans.
The prognosis was not good: it would result in billions of dollars' worth of damage. Something had to be done. In 2000, a trial was conducted using a fictional "Hurricane Zebra." Again, the warnings were dire. But neither simulation factored in what would happen if the levees failed in addition to water pouring over their tops.
The fact is, New Orleans was always heading for disaster. Built in a bowl of reclaimed marshland with Lake Pontchartrain to the north and bisected by the Mississippi, the only surprising thing is how long New Orleans has been spared. The entire area is built on shifting silt. During the 18th century, the French authorities oversaw the roll out of an extensive system of levees in an attempt to shore up the banks of the Mississippi, an approach that has been followed by subsequent administrations over the ensuing centuries.
But, as the levees stop the silt from shifting, the region's ability to absorb storm waves using its natural resources becomes dramatically reduced. Silt islands that used to form in the area and acted as a first line of defense are now much smaller than they were several decades ago.
And as the city has expanded it has reclaimed marshland that has accelerated the drying of the delta. As it has dried, so New Orleans has sunk.
All of this was well known long before Katrina boiled up in the Caribbean, so much so that the American Red Cross three years ago declared it was not prepared to provide hurricane shelters in the city because of the risk to staff and the general public of the shelters being flooded.
In the Natural Hazards Observer last November, Shirley Laska, director of the Center for Hazards Assessment, Response and Technology at the University of New Orleans, predicted a direct hit could produce "conditions never before experienced in a North American disaster" and said evacuation problems would be severe.
Most chilling of all, perhaps, was the estimation by scientists that in any given year the risk of a storm like Katrina hitting the city head on was less than 100-1.
None of which explains why, far from gearing up for a potential catastrophe on a massive scale, the US swept the problem of New Orleans under the carpet.
Far from funding urgent studies on how to save the city in the event of a disaster, budgets were pulled following 9/11, according to former members of FEMA, the body charged with clearing up the mess and sorting out insurance claims.
The lack of money for further studies is perplexing: as late as this year, agency officials had conducted a tour of tsunami-devastated South-east Asia earlier in the year. It caused them to worry.
"We were obsessed with New Orleans because of the risk," Michael Brown, a director, told the New York Times.
And yet nothing happened. Last week the inevitable occurred.
Mike Silah was entitled to believe he'd seen it all. Just after 9pm, on the Sunday of the storm, however, the "hurricane pilot" swooped into the 40km-wide eye of Katrina and gasped. Her size was astounding; towering columns of cumulonimbus stretched 9km above his plane; on all sides swirled a thick wall of cloud holding energy equivalent to more than 10,000 nuclear warheads. He radioed Florida's hurricane center and said a monster was heading towards New Orleans, by now just 160km away.
"I warned there was going to be a very long night ahead. It looked beautiful, but then you remember people on the ground are going to have to survive this," Silah said
But the authorities had heard it all before. Six weeks ago, the Benfield Hazard Research Center in London told the US to expect 200-percent more hurricane activity this summer and demanded "vigilance on the part of the government."
Precisely a month ago, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) told US authorities that the Atlantic coast should expect one of the most ferocious hurricane seasons on record. Meteorologists briefed government officials that it was imperative "hurricane-vulnerable communities have a hurricane preparedness plan in place."
They predicted a 100-percent chance of above-normal hurricane activity. Scientists had noticed something unusual in the waters off the west coast of Africa. Sea temperatures off Ghana were at an historical high, significantly above the 27oC. required to form a hurricane.
Hot air wafting off the vast pool of warm tropical ocean became the fuel that first fed Katrina. As the wet, warm air rose, it cooled and condensed into huge thunderclouds that would eventually form an ominous anvil shape towering 12km above the Atlantic. Silah recalls gazing in awe at the hurricane's eyewall looming 10,000m above.
Meteorologists too had noticed another crucial factor that helped ensure Katrina's size and ferocity. A configuration of the African easterly jet wind would push her neatly west from the warm African waters. In fact, she would be ushered right along "hurricane alley" -- the corridor of tropical seas that runs from the Atlantic to the Gulf of Mexico and eventually to the coast of Louisiana.
Katrina was formed off west Africa around a fortnight ago, its increasing form spun by the trade winds as it crept at 40kph towards the US. As she sucked the warm moist air from the Atlantic so she steadily grew. New charts from the NOAA reveal sea temperatures of 33oC. were recorded off the coast of Louisiana when she struck; Katrina's ferocity would have escalated sharply until the moment she struck land.
By the time Silah "penetrated" Katrina hours before she struck New Orleans, she had become the perfect hurricane; vast banks of turbulent cumulonimbus slowly revolving around a cylinder of still air. She was category 5; the most dangerous of all.
This is part one of a two-part series. Part two will appear tomorrow.
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