New Orleans: Highwater Hell

In New Orleans, fires burn amid a sea of sewage and uncounted corpses. Across the coast of the southern United States, up to 10,000 are killed, hundreds of thousands displaced, and nearly every shred of civilisation removed. In these pages, our writers report on the continuing horrors of Katrina, starting here, with a journey through the devastated remains of one of the world's best-loved cities
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The Independent US

But if you want a measure of the real degradation thrust upon ordinary people here, you need to know the story of Evelyn Turner. When her partner, Xavier Bowie, died in a flooded New Orleans neighbourhood, she did the only thing she could think of doing. She wrapped his body in a sheet, laid him on a makeshift bier of plywood boards, with a little help, floated him down to the main road. For more than an hour, she waited outside the French Quarter, her husband's body resting on the grass verge as car after car passed, their wakes threatening to wash over the corpse.

She was found there, sobbing into a dirty washcloth, by Curtis Miller, who helped float the body down the road, hoping a passing military truck would pick Bowie up. He was disgusted.

"I'm hurt to my heart with this," the grizzled man said. "To see the city stoop this low. It shouldn't be, mister. It should not be." Finally, about three hours after Bowie died, Miller flagged down a passing flatbed truck filled with downed tree limbs. After some heated words and an offer of $20, he persuaded the driver to take the body to Charity Hospital. And there he presumably remains, one of the few counted corpses in this city of death.

But if you walked the street yesterday where Evelyn waited with her dead man you almost begin to wonder if the nightmare happened.

While much of the city remains under water, some of the city's most historic areas appear to have escaped largely unscathed. Little more than a half a mile from the Superdome, the French Quarter - so vital to the city's tourism industry - showed few signs of damage. Decatur Street appeared fine, apart from some floodwater on one side of the road.

Meanwhile on Bourbon Street, traditionally the scene of rowdy, bawdy, raucous fun with revellers tumbling out of the bars clutching cocktails, the streets were empty but there appeared to be no damage. At no 209, the famous Galatoire's restaurant - owned by the same family for four generations and where men are required to wear a jacket to dine - had a sign in the door announcing it was shut but it appeared untouched by the storm. At Mango Mango and the Original Absinthe Bar, these old favourites were boarded up but there was nothing to suggest they could not soon be reopened.

In the Garden District too, damage appeared minimal. Certainly there was a lot of debris from fallen trees and downed branches but there was nothing that would take a work team too long to clear. The famous Lafayette Square was littered with debris but it seemed like something that could be cleared reasonably swiftly by some workers equipped with chain saws. So was this, you begin to wonder, really a lawless hell, or merely the unchecked rumour of one?

And then you get to the Superdome, and go inside, into the vast, obscene interior. Benjamin Phillips had made his temporary home on the Five Yard line. The 51-year-old had set up his camp bed on the artificial turf of the pitch. He was just a few yards from the goal posts. Mr Phillips had a few things with him in a black bag but his most valuable possession was clearly his patience. "I've been here since Sunday," he said. "I was one of the first ones in."

All around was a scene of utter revulsion. Debris, discarded clothes, soiled nappies and who-knows-what-else floated around in foul ankle-deep water.

There was litter, crushed plastic bottles and tramped-in food. The air in the stadium usually full of people cheering the New Orleans Saints American football team was stinging and vile. On entering the Superdome on Friday evening The Independent on Sunday was confronted by a woman crouching in the bleachers, embarrassed and apologetic that there was nowhere more private to use as a lavatory.

The last of the 30,000 or so people who had spent the last week herded in the city's sports stadium were being loaded yesterday on to bright yellow school buses and driven out of the city. But the questions as to why these people were kept here and at places such as the city's convention centre in such appalling conditions will long remain. What transpired was nothing short of a disgrace. The scenes here are what one might associate with disasters in the developing world: it is still hard to believe that this happened in the world's richest nation.

"Initially there was something of a party atmosphere in here," said Mr Phillips, a chef at Café Maspero on Decatur Street in the city's French Quarter. "But on Tuesday morning things started to deteriorate. The running water stopped, the sewage stopped. The toilets backed up. I think that once the water and toilets stopped, people kind of gave up." While days in the Superdome were bad, after the natural light fell, things became hellish. People said there were rapes, attacks and even murders carried out in the darkness. People were drunk and out of control. Or at least they said they heard of such things. In such conditions rumours spread almost as quickly as the stench from the lavatories.

This is not to say that in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans did not suffer from a small number of people seizing on the situation to take things other than food and water or nappies for their babies from the shuttered stores.

This is not to say possessions were not looted and crimes were not committed, that soldiers and emergency workers were not attacked or even shot at.

But on Friday night, in the area around the Superdome - an area reportedly in the grip of armed gangs - the only gangs were people waiting for a ride out of the city, the only guns were being carried by the police and soldiers or else private security guards.

The tension between the National Guard, armed with semi-automatic weapons, and the people they were there to supposedly protect was clear.

Some of the troops were kindly towards the crowds as they queued in the sun to get out of the stadium on Friday night but others were blunt and aggressive. One National Guard officer told a group of journalists that he could not let them enter the dome without an armed guard to escort them.

"If I let you go into the plaza over there there'd be trouble," he said, as the crowds waiting to get out were pushed up against metal barriers. "You wouldn't come out with any of those cameras."

It was nonsense, of course. The crowds in the Superdome - overwhelmingly black and working class - were neither hostile or violent. They were angry, certainly, but they wanted their stories told and more importantly they wanted their questions answered. Why had their not been better provisions in the Superdome, why had there not been more medical facilities, why was there not proper security, why were they made to live like animals? It was obvious that what these tired and despairing people wanted were some clean toilets and a decent night's sleep - not soldiers brandishing guns in their faces.

Towards the front of the queue was a man with his face streaked with tears. Thomas Clayton, a butcher in the city's Lower 9th ward had five children, his wife and four in-laws with him. He was carrying one of his daughters in his arms and his face was turned away from his youngsters as if not to let them see his despair. "The worst thing was having no water, no lights," he said. "I've just been praying to keep going. Without that, I would not have made it." If help was lacking at the Superdome, elsewhere in New Orleans emergency workers were working tirelessly to rescue those people still stranded by the flood waters.

At the junction of Causeway Boulevard and Airline Drive in the west of the city, volunteers were using the flooded highway exit to launch flat-bottomed boats on rescue missions. At one point on Friday afternoon the boats were returning every 10 minutes or so, laden with people and whatever they could bring with them.

There were mothers with their daughters, an old lady struggling with a walking frame, an 18-year-old clutching a five-day-old girl with thick dark curls. There were men with their families, there were people on their own.

One man waded ashore clutching his Bible to his chest. Another had his possessions stuffed in a black bin-liner.

Cheryl Becnel had been trapped with her daughter and her neighbours since the storm struck on Monday, flooding their apartment building to the second floor. They had no running water or power but they shared what food they had. One man had drowned after setting out to try and get back help. It was her daughter, Cherisse, who had first spotted the rescuers. She was holding a sign that read "Please help. Send a boat". When the boat appeared the girl had said "Hallelujah".

"We prayed every day for five days," said Mrs Becmel, after she stepped ashore. "I am just so grateful that we still have our lives."