After the storm: New Orleans wakes up to a world of water – again

Witnesses describe the fear and devastation of Isaac. Guy Adams reports from New Orleans

President Barack Obama declared federal emergencies in Louisiana and Mississippi, freeing up federal aid for affected areas

It was half past four in the morning when Samuel George realised that the levees had broken. That was when a tide of muddy water started seeping into the living area of his single-story trailer home, in the New Orleans suburb of Braithwaite.

With his electricity knocked out, George, 53, stumbled to the front door. But it wouldn't budge. Trapped in the darkness, with a hurricane roaring outside, water levels starting to rise, rapidly, and no obvious escape route, he began to fear for his life.

"I kind of panicked," he recalled. "When I finally did get the door open a little bit, the first thing I saw was my porch floating away. That was what had been blocking it. The water was initially around my ankles, but within a couple of minutes it was coming to my waist. So I went outside, and climbed up a tree on to my roof."

As day broke, George witnessed devastation. His home town, built a stone's throw from the Mississippi, roughly 20 miles downstream of central New Orleans, was under 12ft of water. Residents like him, who had stayed behind to ride out Hurricane Isaac, were marooned in attics and on roofs.

"I could see my neighbour. But my cousin and her boyfriend, who live over the road, they never made it to their roof. So I'm certain they're dead. I'm almost positive. The water was all the way up to the top of the building, and no one had got outside, so I don't see how they could have survived." George spent seven hours outside, praying that his perch would remain above water as gale force winds and torrential rain continued to lash New Orleans. By the time rescuers arrived, in a boat, to take him to safety, he was cold, wet, and exhausted.

"The storm went on so long. It was completely weird," he said. "At one point, a deer swam up and climbed on to my roof. Then an armadillo did, too. The boat that eventually rescued me took the animals away too. I was in kind of a daze. Everything I own was in that trailer. And now it's gone."

Yesterday, 24 hours after his ordeal began, George woke up on a camp bed at a YMCA in the town of Belle Chasse. With him were roughly a hundred other refugees from Plaquemines Parish, a semi-rural district which appears to have been hardest hit by the Category One hurricane.

Isaac, which had been downgraded to a Tropical depression and was sweeping northwards into the state of Mississippi yesterday, was thankfully no Hurricane Katrina. That storm made landfall exactly seven years earlier, devastating swathes of New Orleans, and killing more than 1,800 people.

This week, by contrast, has so far seen just two confirmed storm-related deaths (though more are likely to emerge as the storm waters subside). Flood defences recently added to central New Orleans prevented major residential areas from flooding, and damage to the city centre – which experienced powerful wind and torrential rain for roughly 36 straight hours – appears to be cosmetic.

Across Lake Pontchartrain, to the north, there has been localised flooding, thanks to torrential rain (up to 20ins), and several thousand homes were evacuated in the town of Slidell yesterday. But to most residents, the biggest inconvenience has been a dawn-to-dusk curfew, to deter looting, and ongoing power cuts, which have affected more than 700,000 people.

That was scant consolation to the residents of Plaquemines Parish, though.

Some of their neighbourhoods experienced worse damage than during Katrina, and waters were still around 10ft deep in Braithwaite last night. Terry Rutherford, of the local Sheriff's department, told i that a total of around 800 refugees were now being housed in several local school halls and government buildings.

"If this had been a normal hurricane which moved in and blasted us for a couple of hours, we would have been fine," he said. "But Isaac just sat there, and we got the worst of it. It was incredibly slow moving, and that's what caused us trouble."