Explosions and smoke awaken the city to another day of horror

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The day began before dawn as the refugees were shaken awake by powerful explosions miles away in the industrial area. As plumes of thick black smoke climbed into the sky, the acrid cloud added its stench to the stagnant flood waters. There was only one question on everyone's lips: when were they leaving? "I keep hoping to wake up from this. It's terrible. I cannot believe it's happening," said Imelda Smith, 71, who had been evacuated from her home after four days.

Officials appeared to have no idea when Mrs Smith, or indeed the thousands of other people would be taken on buses to Texas. "We simply don't have the resources," said one state police officer. "But at least here is better than where they were. At least here there is food and water."

Up to 3,000 people were herded together on camp beds or sitting on the floor, clutching their few possessions or eating MRE (Meals Ready to Eat) rations. Around them, the rubbish and squalor steadily built up. No one apparently thought to provide rubbish bins. Indeed, there were only six portable lavatories for all these people, and soon they were overflowing and foul.

The crowd of people sat together in the hot sun, not having had the chance to wash for five days, and the entire motorway junction soon began to fester.

The most vulnerable people were placed under the flyover itself, a location that at least provided a little shade. The elderly, those in wheelchairs or else the disabled sat and waited, their conditions granting them a place out of the burning sun, but no speedier way out of New Orleans. Deborah Thomas sat feeding her 16-year-old daughter Tamala, who suffers from cerebral palsy. They had arrived yesterday afternoon from an emergency shelter in New Orleans where they had spent the past four days with no running water, sanitation, phones or electricity.

"I'm hoping we are going to get somewhere safe," said Mrs Thomas when asked where they were heading. "Somewhere where we can just get clean and have a proper rest. We don't have many clothes left now. We had to wade through the water to get to the school where we stayed. The boat took my daughter but I had to wade through the water."

Sitting near by were a married couple, Louis and Lucille Lozzie, who had been rescued from their tower block after four days. Mr Lozzie said he thought the building would be strong enough to survive the hurricane, but after four days of no water or power, the two 88-year-olds were desperate.

Like many others, the couple were doing the best to retain their dignity in the appalling conditions. Mrs Lozzie wore a white cardigan with her green trousers and her husband still had the spirit to make jokes and quips.

Throughout the day, helicopters arrived at the junction, often landing directly on the highway. Many were bringing more survivors, while medical helicopters were evacuating the most sick and ill.

Some things were holding in check the sense of desperation. One welcome aspect was the willingness of people to help those more troubled than themselves. It soon became apparent that the younger and fitter survivors were helping the elderly and sick.

One man, Colbert Gillford, a sprightly 72-year-old, was keeping an eye on two people in wheelchairs as they sat beneath the bridge. One of them was 76-year-old, Andrew Wilson, accompanied by his dog, Chico. His wife had died two months ago and he had spent four days in his flooded house alone with the dog until he was rescued by boat. Asked how he survived, he said: "I managed with the help of the Lord. The water was all the way into my house."

Edna Gordon appeared to be preparing for the journey to Texas - a journey of uncertainty - alone. Mrs Gordon, a youthful 92-year-old, had been sitting in the underpass since the previous morning. Like thousands of others, her house had been flooded and she and her grandson had spent four days there until being rescued from the roof by helicopter. She had had no phone, no electricity and no idea if or when she might be saved.

She talked about getting in contact with relatives elsewhere in the US, but in the meantime she simply sat hugging the plastic pack of rations she had been given the day before. She said she had no appetite. "I'm not hungry," she said, "I'm sad."