Wed, Sep 07, 2005 - Page 9 News List

After the storm, a new struggle begins

The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina has become America's ordeal. As the survivors suffer, the recriminations have begun

By Jamie Doward, Simon English and Mark Townsend  /  THE OBSERVER , NEW ORLEANS AND NEW YORK

ILLUSTRATION: YU SHA

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.

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.

Looters

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.

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