Families try to salvage belongings from their devastated homes

"There's all sorts. There's medicine for his heart," said his son, Sean, who allowed The Independent to accompany them so long as he and his father were not fully identified. "He took some out when they came to get him but we wanted to come and get the rest."

John was one of thousands of residents of Jefferson Parish in the west of New Orleans returning to their homes to assess how badly their properties had been damaged and to try to salvage what they could. The parish authorities have given residents until 6pm tomorrow to get in, grab some stuff and get out.

Because of potential health concerns of having people living there without electricity or running water, the residents will not be allowed to stay; it could be months before they can return.

Many are returning to devastation. While large parts of the west of the city remained dry, damage from fallen trees has been extensive. Countless homes have been destroyed. Elsewhere flood waters have reached six inches - to the eye, not enough to be devastating, but enough to cause potentially dangerous mould. Across the city, people are returning to find their homes wrecked, their lives turned upside down. Family albums, wedding pictures, mementoes from someone's christening. Entire histories of families and people have been lost to the waters.

One woman wept as she thought of the photographs of her husband that had been destroyed by the flood waters. Candy Rodriguez had driven with her family to Alabama to escape the storm. Returning, exhausted, to find the devastation was clearly difficult for her. In such a state, the damage may also have appeared worse than it really was. "We have lost everything," she said.

Having done what she could at her own house, Mrs Rodriguez was helping her sister-in-law, Judy Canatella, to try to clean up her parents' house. Mrs Canatella's parents had lived in the property since 1967. On the lawn in front of the house they had piled carpets, furniture, clothes, papers and shoes that had been destroyed. It was the clutter and jumble that you build up over a lifetime. "It's everything," said Mrs Canatella, as she explained that the water had reached 18 inches high inside the house. "It's going to need complete renovation."

By contrast, water was at least 10ft deep outside John's house. The journey to his property in the Metairie district of the city was made in a flat-bottomed boat owned by some locals, who were making their own such trip and agreed to help the elderly man. The boat was pushed off from a highway ramp on Veterans Boulevard. A gentle, gliding left turn was made at Fleur de Lys Drive and the vessel headed down a avenue of half-submerged oak trees. The filthy water came up almost to the top of the street lights and covered cars and vans.

At one point, one of the boat's crew spotted a dog, swimming furiously in the water, his face terrified. They made a sharp turn left to try to reach the animal, calling out to him, but the dog was too scared and swam into the flooded porch-way of a property. Eventually one of the crew members used an axe to smash in the glass of the door, hoping the dog would swim in and somehow make his way to the roof.

Soon the boat arrived at John's house and he gingerly stepped on to the roof of his flooded garage, the water lapping at the eaves, and he and his son made his way inside the property. Inside you could hear them rummaging around and then they appeared carrying a cooler box in which they had placed his vital medicine. He also brought two hunting guns with him.

"I've got to have them. I used to be a champion shot, I used to be a Louisiana state champion," he said, as he clambered back into the rocking boat. His son, a member of the Jefferson Parish Sheriff's Department, was sweating profusely but he looked pleased. He tapped the top of the plastic cooler.

"I was also able to get my mother's remains," he said. "She passed on three years ago. I'd been looking for the urn but I've got it. They seem fine."

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