Thu, Sep 08, 2005 - Page 9 News List

America reflects on turbulent period

Tales from hurricane survivors continue to relay the full horror of the last two weeks

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

ILLUSTRATION: MOUNTAIN PEOPLE

"There was a party going on in Bourbon Street the night before the hurricane struck," said Rosemary Rimmer-Clay, a Quaker from Brighton, England, who was visiting the city with her two sons, after escaping the immediate disaster area.

"One man stood up and said: `I don't want to die.' There was a real sense of impending doom," she said.

Trapped in the Park St Charles hotel, in the city's central business district, she sensed the party atmosphere evaporate as Katrina's 224kph winds approached.

First came the stories of the 8m waves surging across Lake Pontchartrain. Then the toilets failed in the hotel and the lights went out.

"The atmosphere felt incredibly dangerous. It was like a war zone. But at the same time parts of it were incredibly boring, just sitting in the dark listening to crashing sounds," Rimmer-Clay recalls.

Then, after eight hours of meteorological violence, came silence. Katrina had torn across the city, dropping to a category 4 just before she roared in, but still the strongest hurricane to hit New Orleans for decades.

The fifth of the city's population who had chosen to stay -- or had no choice -- breathed a collective sigh of relief and waited for the lights to come back on, unaware that the storm surges had fatally weakened the levees protecting the city. After the wind, a new and more deadly force was about to be unleashed -- the waters of the Mississippi and Lake Pontchartrain.

Even before New Orleans could start to assess the damage the bad news started to leak out -- literally. Two levees had burst, sending huge waves washing down the city streets, turning them into canals.

Outside, as roads and buildings disappeared under water, chaos ensued in an orgy of looting.

"The police told us they were authorized to beat or shoot looters. I saw one man carrying a huge box of tampons; it was surreal," Rimmer-Clay said.

Witnesses told how they saw a mail van being held up and its contents ripped out.

On top of the long-term failures to protect the city, a new and deadly series of failures were about to be revealed. Confronted with the US's worst natural disaster, its inability to cope would shamingly be revealed.

There is presently only one way out of the city by car, and that is to the south. To the north, Interstate 10 disappears into a vast expanse of water 18km from the center. It is a surreal juxtaposition of Tarmac and swampland: man subsumed by nature. On the city's outskirts, at the junction with La Place, where 24-hour burger joints now stand strangely empty and road signs lie twisted at the road's edge, scores of school buses wait ready to transport the homeless out of the city into the welcoming arms of church groups across Louisiana.

At the end of last week, to get onto one of the buses was the equivalent of winning the Louisiana state lottery as huge lines formed to escape. The elderly and children get priority. Occasionally, someone in the crowd faints and has to be carried out by the soldiers of the National Guard, who finally have poured into this beleaguered city.

Few people now say much. Some shout at the television cameras: "We're dying," "I haven't had water or eaten for three days," "Doesn't anyone care?" But most are too tired to talk.

Instead they clutch their plastic bag bundles close to them like children. The high drama, the excitement of surviving Katrina, has been replaced by a dull hatred of the red brown swamp that now surrounds and imprisons them.

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