Chaos spread across New Orleans along with the brown, toxic floodwater in the early hours of yesterday morning, and the thousands of stragglers still trapped awoke to find themselves in a city with few laws, little mercy, and no clear way out.
The police seemed to have all but evaporated in the course of a night of looting and gunfire, in which at least one police officer was badly injured. A few camouflaged national guard trucks could be seen moving through the downtown area in convoy, but there were no guardsmen on the streets to deal with the wreckage of the city.
A boy ran out from a petrol station on Lee Circle clutching boxes of chocolate bars, followed by an elderly man carrying all the cigarettes his arms could hold. He flashed a half-toothed smile and declared “Everything’s cool”, offering a pack as a gift.
On the corner of Loyola Avenue and Julia Street, just a few blocks from the French Quarter, people emerged from abandoned buildings as the sun began to heat up the floodwater and turn the air to hot soup.
Nine out of 10 of these remnants were black. All were destitute, dressed in rags, and carrying what was left of their possessions in plastic bags. They had survived the hurricane and the floods and a terrifying night, and now they were wandering the streets, looking for a way out.
As the occasional car negotiated its way around the few remaining dry stretches of road, people emerged from all sides asking for a ride out of town or failing that, some water. The slowly riding tide at their feet was a lethal mix of the Atlantic Ocean, oil and faeces.
Everyone who had passed the night in the commercial district had lived their own nightmare.
“It was like a war zone here. There was shooting and looting, and I saw people beating women; it’s fucking ugly,” said a man with bare, tattooed arms, carrying an empty water canister. He identified himself only as Jason, pointing out he had been in trouble with the law himself. “I’m just trying to get to a bus stop so I can get out of here. Which way are you going?” he wanted to know.
Most people had heard that there was a plan to bring buses into New Orleans and evacuate people from the Superdome, the huge arena whose badly tarnished gold roof loomed over the intersection. Salvation seemed so close. It was only a hundred yards away, but surrounded, like some brooding castle, by its own moat of deep floodwater.
Elisha James had spent the night in the lobby of a rundown block of flats calling itself the Plaza Towers. Along with her boyfriend and his seven-year-old daughter, they had been trying to get to the Superdome since 5am, but were turned back by police manning checkpoints, who told them it was too dangerous.
“The police said you were on your own,” Ms James said. “If you’re not in the Superdome, you’re on your own.”
After sitting out Hurricane Katrina, she and her small family had fled from her mother’s house when the waters began to rise on Tuesday evening. They had no water and little food left.
Ms James, like most of the people left on the streets, felt she had been forsaken by whoever was in charge. There was talk of rescue efforts, but no one had come for her. “We made a fire in the night so they could see us, but they went past us several times,” she complained. “We saw seven or eight trucks, and most had no one on them.”
As if to illustrate her point, a convoy of six military lorries drove by at that moment, their drivers looking straight ahead, refusing to acknowledge the entreaties of those left on the pavement. They were empty, apart from some cardboard boxes of water bottles. Their high, thick wheels kicked up water on both sides.
“There are people who’ve been sleeping here for two nights now,” she said, pointing to a Greyhound bus station that had become a makeshift shelter for the desperate.
Then she pointed up to a multi-storey carpark and cried: “A lady went into labour up there and no one came. We could hear the screams.”
She and her small knot of dependants moved on as the day got hotter and stickier. A police helicopter had landed on a dry car park nearby and a murmur went round that perhaps something was about to happen. But it took off again and the Superdome looked as far away as ever.
This is how the events unfolded, at local times, as reported by local newspapers and blogs
Monday August 29
· 6.10am Hurricane Katrina strikes the Louisiana coast south of New Orleans. The storm centre, sustaining winds of 145mph (233kmh), veers east across the Gulf of Mexico, sparing the city.
The accompanying storm surge raises sea levels by 22ft (6.7 metres) as it floods ashore on the coast between Gulfport and Biloxi, Mississippi, pushing more than a mile inland.
“In East Biloxi, one of the worst hit areas, several people managed to survive by perching in treetops for the duration of the hurricane.
Huong Tran, 50, and her fiance were unable to leave because of car trouble. As the water rose, they climbed an oak tree, which was to be their refuge for the next six hours. “I thought I was going to die,” Ms Tran said. “The water was over the house.”
Mississippi Sun Herald
· 8.39am After New Orleans breathes a collective sigh of relief that it has been spared the worst devastation, water levels suddenly begin rising. A levee, protecting the city, which lies below sea level, has been breached. The local station, WWL-TV, is evacuated.
· 10.35am Lousiana’s governor, Kathleen Blanco, warns the damage is “worse than our worst fears”. Martial law declared in some areas. Gas leaks are reported, there is no electricty, pumping stations not working.
· 11.01am The breach in the 17th Street canal levee is found to be 200 feet wide as water inundates the city. The first hospital is evacuated and 3,000lb sandbags are airlifted to stem the flow.
· 11.21am George Bush cuts short his holiday. New Orleans Times-Picayune newspaper evacuates its offices.
“Many people are doing good deeds. When I was out on I-10 [highway], watching that horrible flooding and the people trapped in their houses, there was one family who wouldn’t evacuate until the elderly woman who lived next door was taken out. And they inflated an air mattress and put her on that to try to keep her afloat. I saw people who were disabled today being hauled through the streets by other younger, healthier people.”
Posted on the Humid City blog
·1.05 pm As the city empties, looting begins. In the French Quarter, people are seen running out with grocery baskets full of soft drinks, chips and nappies. Gates protecting clothing and jewelry stores are ripped open.
· 3.09 pm Governor Blanco admits: “We are looking for ways to get people out of the Superdome [where many had taken refuge] and out of New Orleans. She is near tears. Residents sitting on rooftops plead to be rescued.
“As if water worries weren’t enough … now the looting is becoming extremely serious. In Uptown, one the few areas that remained dry, a bearded man patrolled Oak Street near the boarded-up Maple Leaf Bar, a sawn-off shotgun slung over his shoulder. The owners of a hardware store sat in folding chairs, pistols at the ready. They broke into the Shell station across the street. I walked over with my 12-gauge and shot a couple into the air.’ A supply store sported spray-painted signs reading “You Loot, I Shoot”.
Posted by cobaltgreen on the Katrinacane blog
· 9.21pm The Mississippi county of Harrison announces its death toll alone is at least 100. Thirty victims are in a beachfront apartment block that collapsed under a 25ft wall of water.
“The town Colin hails from has been estimated to be about 75% gone. Nine-metre long tree trunks were literally slammed through brick walls like wooden missiles … He and his family … have lost nearly everything they own. Not that that really matters, as long as they are ok … things can be replaced. I do not know if he is ok or not right now, but I know him to be resilient, smart and resourceful. I know I can’t get to him now, not until I make contact with him (and believe me, I’m calling every hour …)”
Posted on the queenofcute blog
· 7.49am Four naval ships head to New Orleans with food and water. Mayor warns electricity is not likely to be restored for up to 12 weeks. The Army Corps of Engineers drops sandbags into the levee breach again.
· 9.22am Looting in several neighbour-hoods. Officers send in armoured personnel carrier. Officer reported shot in the head by a looter. The entire gun store in a Wal-Mart supermarket stolen.
“Both [New Orleans] airports are underwater. An oil tanker is aground and leaking oil – 3 more big boats are aground. The Southern Yacht Club burned … 80% of the city is underwater.
© 2005 Guardian Newspapers Ltd. / UK