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CHAPTER ONE:
 A CITY REDUCED TO RUINS

By Neil Mackay, Jenifer Johnston and Alan Crawford

REFUGEE CENTRES: 

Taffany Smith was one of at least 30,000 people seeking sanctuary and shelter at the New Orleans' Superdome in the heart of a city once famed as the Big Easy. "We pee on the floor. We are like animals," says the 25-year-old mother of a three-week-old baby boy.

The stench inside the sports stadium nauseates. The stadium, home of New Orleans' Saints football team, has become one of the epicentres of the chaos and violence which has engulfed the city since hurricane Katrina struck on Monday August 29 at 10am. Women and at least one child were raped in the sports stadium. Men were murdered in there too. Nursing mothers and their babies spent six days living amongst raw sewage. Crack vials littered the floor. Blood and faeces smeared the walls. A desperate man hurled himself from a balcony, taking his own life. A soldier was shot in the legs at the Superdome when he scuffled with a man scrambling to get on a bus for evacuees. The heat inside the sweltering dome hit temperatures above 120 degrees Fahrenheit. Fires burned in the hallways; armed gangs stalked the shadows.

Buses arriving for the evacuation on Friday hadn't come for the overwhelmingly black and increasingly hysterical refugees who were left in this apocalyptic vision of hell. Instead, the vehicles had come for the white tourists who had earlier been moved out of the stadium and into the nearby Hyatt Hotel for their own safety, after they came under a barrage of racial abuse and explicit threats of violence. There, they were piled on to the plush, air-conditioned coaches and taken to safety.

Of the 2000 people left behind and still suffering in the Superdome last night, the children are deteriorating rapidly, with infants plagued with diarrhoea.

Black survivors, held back from the buses by armed National Guardsmen, were disgusted by the act - seen as a display of grotesque racism. One angry survivor, Michael Levy, said: "We've been sleeping on the ground like rats. I say burn this whole city down!"

The National Guard threatened to shoot dead hungry refugees who were looking for food in the kitchens of the convention centre - another of the hellish refugee holding pens in the city. Donald Dudley, a seafood merchant, said: "They pulled guns and told us we had to leave that kitchen or they would blow our damn brains out. We don't want their help. Give us some vehicles and we'll help ourselves out of here."

Yet still the residents of New Orleans - or at least those who had not evacuated the city before disaster struck - come to the Superdome and convention centre in their thousands. The mayor's office was unable to contact the police to tell them to stop sending people there, yet the military have had to turn hundreds away.

Those at the Superdome beg the military and police in vain for more water and food. Nobody can leave without the authority of the National Guard, who are enforcing tough discipline. ''Conditions are steadily declining,'' says Major Ed Bush. ''We don't know how long we can hold on.'' According to a National Guard sergeant, John Jewell, some survivors appeared ''to have lost their senses''.

Another sergeant, Caleb Williams, tells how he and his men had to hunt down a desperate survivor who had lost all his relatives and then tried to escape into the streets from the Superdome.

"We had to chase him down. He said he just wanted to get out, to go somewhere. We took him to the terrace and said 'look'." Before the man was a vision of hell - fires burning across the city, rising water and roaming mobs. "He didn't realise how bad things are out there. He just broke down. He started bawling. We took him back inside."

Inside, however, many tourists like Jamie Trout, a 22-year-old Briton from Sunderland, felt it was better to take their chances on the streets than remain exposed to the free-for-all mayhem inside the refugee centres. Trout and some 50 other travellers sought refuge in the Superdome but became instant victims for gangs inside. "It was like something out of Lord Of The Flies," he said, "One minute everything is calm and civil, the next it descends into chaos." In his diary, he wrote: "A man has been arrested for raping a seven-year-old in a toilet. This place is hell."

ON THE STREETS

Algiers was once an affluent New Orleans suburb. Today it is a war-zone. In one incident, a gun battle broke out between a group of residents keeping watch on the streets and three armed men turning into the road. "They estimate that 25 shots were fired,'' says Daryl Holmes. She used to live in Algiers and has many friends and family trapped in the area. Holmes is now acting as a point of contact between residents and the outside world - and trying to highlight their plight. ''Of the three guys, two were hit - one in the back and the other in the shoulder. All three got away.

"What's happening in Algiers is a microcosm of the rest of New Orleans. It is total social breakdown. It is very, very, very scary for everyone. To me, it is less a racial issue than a conflict between the haves and the have-nots. On top of that there is screaming panic - a sense of 'who cares what happens, we are all gonna die'. It is out of control.

"There are small groups of armed residents walking the streets in Algiers. I understand completely why they would want to do that, but it's amplifying the anxiety. There are armed looters walking openly on the streets, and they are facing them alone."

"Somebody needs to get some help to these folks. Many of them desperately want to get out, but they can't see a path to safety through the incredible violence surrounding them. Are there no authorities left? Is everybody gone? For Algiers, the storm is coming again."

Fergie Lewis, who lived in Algiers and is now trying to get help for her friends still trapped in the area, says some 100 people are now having to face down and kill armed men on their own doorsteps. "The residents still left are now under siege from the mob," she says, adding that they had to "kill four people in an attempt to protect property and life". She asked the international press to send this message out: "Please get the state police in!"

Race war, class war and pure unadulterated anarchy have now gripped New Orleans - despite the eventual arrival of the military. When the National Guard did finally roll into New Orleans on Friday, Lieutenant-General Steven Blum, commander of the National Guard, declared: "The cavalry is and will continue to arrive." He said 7000 Guardsmen would be in the city by last night.

At least a thousand corpses, some being eaten by rats, are floating through the city's drowned streets. Wealthy whites are shooting indiscriminately at blacks who they believe to be murder gangs and looters; women, children and grown men are being raped and killed in alley-ways; cops are running away from the frontlines and telling survivors that it's now a case of "every man for himself". People are killing themselves in despair. Rescuers, heli copters and hospitals have been sniped at.

One of the first places looted was a Wal-Mart store which had its arms and ammunition stocks emptied. In downtown New Orleans, screams could be heard from tenement blocks as men wielding stainless steel baseball bats - knee-deep in a toxic stew of floodwater, effluent and chemicals - methodically beat their way inside the buildings. Some flooded streets bubbled with gas escaping from beneath the water.

TB, West Nile fever, typhoid, cholera and dysentery are on the way. Mosquitoes are swarming around survivors who walk through corpse and rubble-strewn roads. The victims continually ask where the water is, where the police are, why the army isn't there, why the government is not doing anything. One said: "It's hard for me to believe that this is America." Another chanted 'Where is Bush! Where is Bush!'"

Bodies of dead elderly folk sit propped up in their wheelchairs on the sidewalk with tartan travel rugs thrown over them; nearby shopping malls burn to the ground and fires spread across the city. Pointing to a dead elderly woman in the street, Daniel Edward says: "I don't treat my dog like that. You can do everything for other countries, but you can't do nothing for your own people. You can go overseas with the military, but you can't get them down here."

The destruction, like the violence, seems to be splitting along racial grounds. The city's old Georgian piles, owned by affluent whites, have survived, but the crime-ridden slums and housing projects, which were home to blacks, have been swept away. The city has a two-to-one black-white population split and most crime is being seen as a black-on-white issue - although there was also violence and chaos in white areas.

Military analyst Colonel Bill Cowan fears a "Saigon situation" on the streets, where helicopters landing to save stranded people will be overwhelmed by desperate survivors. This scenario has already been seen at evacuation points where buses arriving to ferry survivors away have been mobbed. One helicopter came under sniper fire at the Superdome.

According to Henry Whitehorn, chief of the Louisiana State Police, many officers have been handing in their badges. "They indicated that they had lost everything and didn't feel that it was worth them going back to take fire from looters and losing their lives," he says, while insisting the looters "will not take control of the city of New Orleans".

Debbie Durso, a tourist from Michigan, said that when she asked a police officer for help he told her: "Go to hell. It's every man for himself."

Some 88 police officers retreated when confronted by an angry crowd at the convention centre, while they were trying to investigate rapes and beatings. Mayor Ray Nagin later issued a "desperate SOS" and ordered 1500 police officers to suspend their search and rescue missions to restore order in the city as reports of murder and mayhem mounted up. Then the National Guard were issued with orders to shoot to kill. Louisiana's governor, Kathleen Blanco, said that among the soldiers were 300 "battle-tested" guardsmen: "They have M-16s and are locked and loaded. These troops know how to shoot and kill and I expect they will."

THE EMERGENCY WORKERS

Dr Norman McSwain at the city's Charity Hospital was at breaking point when he sent a desperate message to the Associated Press in the early hours of Friday morning. "We have been trying to call the mayor's office, we have been trying to call the governor's office. We have tried to use any inside pressure we can. We are turning to you. Please help us."

Medical services in New Orleans have been devastated. Only yesterday did evacuations properly start to swing into gear. According to Coast Guard Lt-Cmdr Cheri Ben-Iesan, when some hospitals tried to airlift patients there were "people just taking potshots at police and at helicopters".

Patients are now being taken by military aircraft to hospitals in surrounding states. McSwain's Hospital on Friday had no food, water or electricity, and had to move patients from floor to floor to avoid looters pouring into the building.

At University Hospital patients were loaded on to boats to head for higher ground, but then had to return as there was nowhere dry enough for them to land. Dr Lee Hamm, medicine chairman at Tulane University, said he took a canoe to the two public hospitals to check conditions. "There are patients laying on stretchers on the floor, the halls are dark, the stairwells are dark. Of course, there's no elevators. There's no communication with the outside world," he said.

"We're afraid that somehow these two hospitals have been left off, that somehow somebody has either forgotten it or ignored it or something, because there is no evidence anything is being done." Hamm said there was relief when word traveled that the military was coming to evacuate them, but the rescue did not materialise until Saturday. "You can imagine how demoralizing that was," he said.

Richard Zuschlag, CEO of a private ambulance service, told how roving bands of armed men shot at his staff and how hospitals were begging for police SWAT - Special Weapons and Tactics - teams to come to their protection. A crowd in front of one hospital tried to hijack an ambulance; at another, 65 patients were stranded on a roof - eight died. On other roofs, survivors held up sheets painted with signs like "Help me". One helicopter was attacked by a 100-strong armed gang when it tried to land to evacuate survivors.

In other parts of Texas, Alabama, Arkansas, Florida and Mississippi volunteers are helping to staff school gyms and sports stadiums to accommodate the victims, some of whom have been through the psychologically draining experiences of surviving a hurricane; a week in the hell of the New Orleans Superdome; life on the streets and who now face displacement and homelessness in the long-term. "Call it biblical. Call it apocalyptic. Whatever you want to call it, take your pick," says Robert Lewis, who was bussed to Texas.

"There were bodies floating past my door. We were, like, on an island. We did the best we could. We were just like zombies walking around at night." Lewis put his children on his shoulders and walked for two miles in flooded streets before being rescued by helicopter.

Those left behind in Louisiana, and in neighbouring states Mississippi and Alabama, are still waiting to be evacuated or are starting to learn to cope with what they have. Rich Campbell, an editor at the Hattiesburg American in Mississippi is now living at his office with his 12-year-old son, taking food and water twice a day to his wife and mother-in-law at their home which is standing but damaged after the hurricane.

"I am increasingly frightened as the looting that is going on in New Orleans is starting to spread here. There is a dusk-to-dawn curfew. We desperately need the federal government to provide some force that can keep order, people who can stand at cross points and make sure this doesn't spiral out of control."

Campbell does not expect to have any water for two weeks. The city's sewage system is also gone. "The people here in $200,000 homes are suffering just as much as those who live in trailer parks," he said. "Our area will not survive without outside help. We are looking beyond what our own government can provide."

Communication systems are totally down. In New Orleans, the mayor's office could not communicate with the police; doctors at community hospitals could not contact the National Guard to tell them they were under attack from looters. In the short term some of the required help will come from charities. The Red Cross, Salvation Army and Southern Baptist Convention are among those who are filling the breach.

In Texas, Darren Irby of the American Red Cross said: "This is my eighth or ninth hurricane and it was a monster of a storm. There are just so many areas we can't get to. We have 2000 shelters from Texas to Florida. What we are seeing is the opposite to most situations we operate - usually the shelters are full after an emergency and then get depopulated as people go home. But people can't go home here, and the shelters will get busier."

Texas is providing emergency shelter for 75,000 refugees; other states are also accepting evacuees. Major Mark Brown is co-ordinating Salvation Army efforts. His teams were first on the scene in many parts of the destruction zone, which stretches some 90,000 square miles - an area the size of Britain.

"We are handling evacuees as best we can," he said. "At the moment we are serving 500,000 meals a day and I expect that to rise. It is a massive effort and it is stretching us immensely."

The Salvation Army has officers all over the region, but like everyone else they are struggling themselves. "Major Richard Brittle and his wife stayed at our New Orleans hostel with 250 homeless people through the hurricane; 48 hours ago they only had enough food and water left for one meal. They are stranded right now in a building surrounded by floodwater."

The front page of the Salvation Army website asks for a $100 donation, "enough to feed a family of four for two days, provide two cases of drinking water and one household clean-up kit containing brooms, mops, buckets and cleaning supplies" - it is the kind of appeal usually reserved for African countries. Brown said the first phase of securing healthcare, feeding and shelter for the refugees will cost the Salvation Army $100 million.

The second phase, to comprise months of education, housing, clothing and feeding for unemployed, homeless and displaced refugees, some of whom will need intensive counselling, cannot yet be costed.

Even though the Federal Emergency Management Agency (Fema) is tasked to deal with this sort of disaster nationally, it has tried to shirk responsibility, claiming individual states must take the lead themselves or invite the agency to manage the situation. The comments have elicited a deluge of outrage nationwide. New Orleans mayor, Ray Nagin, spat: "Excuse my French, everybody in America - but I'm pissed."

He poured scorn on Bush's inept tour of the devastated Gulf Coast disaster area, accused the White House of "playing games &ldots; and spinning for the cameras" and added that the federal government "didn't have a clue what's going on".

Fema spokeswoman Linda Sacia insists that "if we are asked, we will come. It is not as if we didn't have a plan, it is that there was no way of knowing what this was going to turn into." Earlier, Fema admitted that it didn't know there were thousands of survivors in the convention centre.

At a local level, large-scale rescue and evacuation attempts have been almost non-existent. Colonel Terry Ebbert, New Orleans' director of Homeland Security, said: "This is a national disgrace. We can send massive amounts of aid to tsunami victims, but we can't bail out the city of New Orleans. Fema has been here three days, yet there is no command and control. I haven't seen a single Fema guy."

THE WARNINGS

As the hurricane hit, John Pardue sat in his home in Baton Rouge, nervously tracking the storm's progress on his computer for three hours until the power was cut. As director of the Louisiana Water Resources Research Institute and an expert in the detection of levee flaws, he and his team had produced a computer model showing the calamitous consequences of a major hurricane striking the New Orleans region.

The model was widely applauded when first developed five years ago, yet the federal government effectively refused to act on the warnings. Critically, the major civil engineering works needed to build a new sea wall which would have greatly limited the hurricane's devastating effect, did not transpire.

"We knew that it was going to be catastrophic," Pardue says. "It was not a surprise; it was in the New York Times, National Geographic, Scientific American. This exact scenario: water will be 20 feet high in parts of the city, people will die, all the things that have happened. It's eerie because we've been thinking about this for a number of years, and to see it unfold before your eyes is just unbelievable."

The main problem is three decades of wetland destruction which have removed the vital ecological barrier for the city. Add to that a rise in sea level linked to global warming, he said. Under George W Bush, the army corps of engineers and the Environmental Protection Agency were told that they could no longer protect wetlands unless the ecology was somehow related to interstate commerce.

Despite the lack of political will to tackle the situation, Pardue's computer storm model was taken seriously enough by the authorities to be used as a prediction tool for the State of Louisiana as the storm hit. Fema carried out a planning exercise with Pardue's hurricane centre six months ago. But once more, warnings were to no avail.

"To be honest," said Pardue, "Fema seems to be struggling at this point to put that plan into action, or to adapt the plan to the things that have happened. It's a very difficult situation but it does seem like there was not a real concerted effort to move things in place ahead of time."

Pardue and the hurricane centre team now intend to use their model to "try and explain to people that a small investment, relative to what it's going to cost to fix this, would have prevented it".

The resulting chaos has been exacerbated by the lack of National Guardsmen on the ground, said Pardue, adding: "It's very discouraging, particularly because we can't seem to get any National Guard here and I know where those people are - all of our National Guard is overseas, not here. That's just very frustrating."

Neither was the devastation wrought by the hurricane a surprise to Frank Lepore, at the US National Hurricane Centre in Miami. At 1pm last Sunday, as he left for his office, his colleagues issued a warning of a "potentially catastrophic" category four hurricane to a swathe of Gulf states, from Louisiana right through Mississippi and Alabama to the Florida border.

With 11 years' hurricane experience, Lepore knew well what this meant. He'd already witnessed first-hand the effects of hurricane Katrina, when the eye of the storm swept directly over his home in Miami-Dade County the previous Thursday, causing blackouts. Then Katrina was a category one hurricane with wind speeds of 71mph. Tracking its progress in real time on his home computer before leaving for work, Lepore noted Katrina was now reaching speeds of 140mph.

"You know that once these things get into the Gulf of Mexico - essentially a closed basin of water - it's going to hit something. The nightmare was always that it would be a major metropolitan area like New Orleans."

Lepore spent most of the next 26 hours on the telephone advising communities in the states which border the Gulf of Mexico about the disaster that was unfolding. Another warning was issued at 6am on Monday Central District Time - 12pm GMT - that Katrina, now "extremely dangerous", was preparing to move onshore at Southern Plaquemines Parish on the Mississippi Delta in Louisiana, about 50 miles southeast of New Orleans. Ten minutes later it struck.

Katrina did not track directly over New Orleans, but swept a little to the east. But any relief on the ground was short lived. "This has been talked about for decades," Lepore said. "It has always been the nightmare scenario, that we would have a major hurricane on an angle of approach that put the strongest winds over the lake and caused the levees to over-top or damaged them to the point they breached. Both scenarios have occurred."

Lepore pointed out that the National Hurricane Centre, part of the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, issued an outlook in August for this year's hurricane season that was "above-normal". It was the biggest warning of a deadly hurricane season in the eight years since forecasts began. "At least" 12 tropical storms have arrived so far this season. But, Lepore added: "There's a lot more to come."

04 September 2005

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