Away from the Big Easy, Katrina left a trail of death and devastation

Click to follow
The Independent US

"Here was my house," he says, pointing to pylons sticking up from a canal on the edge of the lake. "When the water arrived, we went up into the attic. When it went down, we got out of the house. Then the wind just picked it up. It's lying over there." He gestured resignedly to a mountain of rubble across the road. "Everything's over there."

"Camelia City", they used to call Slidell. It was a pleasant community 20 miles north-east of New Orleans, between Lake Pontchartrain and the Gulf. Today much of it is a wasteland, part of the "ground zero" of the storm that festers in the steamy 95 degree heat of this apocalyptic summer in south-east Louisiana.

The attention, inevitably, has gone to New Orleans. But the Big Easy's plight was caused by water from a breached levee. In places like Slidell, you witness the sheer devastation of one of the mightiest storms ever to hit the continental US. From the shoreline, a moonscape of beams, girders, broken trees and the innards of air-conditioning systems stretch for hundreds of yards. A stench fills the dank air, a mixture of the sea, dead and rotting fish, and leaking gas.

Travelling down the four miles of Route 11 from the Interstate to Slidell, is a descent into hell. At first all is relatively normal, just a few snapped-off trees. The first sign of the unusual is a fair-sized boat, tilted on its side next to the red-brick railway station.

Then things get nastier: ripped-down billboards, pools of caked mud and scattered debris. Next you come to flooded homes, seemingly floating in a dark brown ooze. Then you get to the place where until last Sunday evening Tony and Edith Neder lived their ordinary American lives.

No house, whether new or old, wood or brick, has been spared. Most have been reduced - by the perverse neatness of Katrina's fury - to heaps of junk. All around lie the bric-a-brac of daily living; clothes and kitchen utensils festoon the half-broken trees and are scattered across the earth.

The veneer of 21st-century US civilisation - the manicured lawns, the tidy sidewalks, motels, gas stations and the bungalows that housed local law practices, beauty parlours and doctors' surgeries - has been swept away. The destruction is almost total. Truly, this was "America's tsunami".

Here in Slidell, on the fringes of the catastrophe, help is slow in arriving. Up near the centre of the town, workers are starting to re-erect telephone pylons and string power lines. Half a mile up from the station a fruit and vegetable market has even opened.

But closer to the water, nothing. The Neders are at the end of the line. "I can't understand why they haven't brought at least some basic supplies," Mr Neder said. "You look at everything that goes to Iraq, and you have to wonder."

The worldly possessions of himself and Edith are in two black plastic rubbish bags: a few blankets, some paper towels, some bottles of water and other basic supplies. Miraculously Yellow, their six-week-old golden labrador, also survived.

The Neders can't get out. His truck is half-buried in mud. The tools of his small engine repair business lie in the mud, salted up and useless. They're relying on the charity of more fortunate friends to get by.

No one knows how many people died in Slidell. "I guess we're lucky to be alive; we thought it was the end," Mr Neder said. But all luck is relative. "We've lost everything. The truck was insured, but not the house and I've lost $800 (£440) I had in the house."

The Neders knew of the warnings to get out, but family circumstance intervened. His son had to take his six-year-old, who has leukaemia, to hospital. Mr Neder agreed to go to his son's house to make sure everything was properly shut up. Then there was no way to leave.

But why did he live here in the first place, in a prime area for hurricanes? "It was like heaven," was his answer. "You could fish directly from the front balcony. I just bought a boat, but we never got to use it." Katrina, however, has broken the spell. "Whatever happens," Mr Neder said, "when everything's settled down, we're out of here for good."