Observations: New play aims to take audiences on a journey through the heart of New Orleans

It is 40 degrees in New Orleans and the air is like steam. The young woman dodging debris on what was once her street is on the brink of tears. "How can it be?" she gulps. "Supposedly the richest country in the world, where we can be in Sri Lanka after the tsunami in less than 48 hours, yet the government could not make it to New Orleans in a week?" Her question encapsulates the tragedy of the city, while its implications have yet to register with those in power.

Hurricane Katrina struck Louisiana in the early hours of August 29 2005. For the next week, despite the presence of the world's media, the US government spectacularly failed to deliver aid to the waterlogged city. As well as the fatalities caused by the the hurricane itself, the ensuing week of inactivity cost many more lives. Four years later, the young woman's astonishment still resonates. I had met her as part of the research for my play, Katrina, which sets out to contextualise, and to answer, her question.

In recreating New Orleans in a vast warehouse on the South Bank, we aim to take our audiences on a journey through the heart of this drowned city. Experiences related on successive storeys of the building give people the chance to touch, smell, hear and see the impact of generations of negligence on one of the most culturally vibrant cities in the world. Homes, offices, bars and churches can be entered and the stories of their occupants heard – all the while, performers and witnesses are sharing the same space and the same light.

In giving to this disaster a local habitation, we hope to make its complexities understandable, to foster empathy with its many courageous survivors, and, to let people make up their own minds about what we can each do to prevent such state-sponsored injustice becoming ubiquitous. Most of all, on this fourth anniversary, we want to do something towards ensuring the preventable man-made tragedy of Katrina is neither forgotten, nor explained away as another fluke of nature.

Jericho House's 'Katrina', written and directed by Jonathan Holmes, runs at the Bargehouse, London from 1 September

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