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Last Updated: Tuesday, 29 August 2006, 11:54 GMT 12:54 UK
South Asians recall Katrina disaster
By Shahzeb Jillani
BBC News, New Orleans, Louisiana

A New Orleans resident looks over his ruined home
Many houses in New Orleans are still choked with mud and debris

The small but vibrant South Asian community in New Orleans recalls with pain the day America's deadliest natural disaster swept through the Gulf of Mexico on 29 August 2005.

It was a day most people can never forget.

No matter what the subject of conversation in New Orleans, the subject quickly turns to Katrina.

For people here, life is divided between "pre-Katrina" and "post-Katrina" days.

Desperate need

The unparalleled devastation in the area brought out the worst in some people as food and water shortages led to widespread lootings and crime.

But the humanitarian crisis brought out the best in others, with many offers of money and assistance to those left homeless.

Dr M Sulaiman
There was no food, no place to sleep or sanitary facilities. It was a nerve wrecking experience
Dr M Sulaiman

In the immediate aftermath, Americans of Pakistani and Indian origin sprung into action to help those in desperate need.

Pakistani doctors volunteered to set up urgent medical camps.

Indian community activists turned their homes into temporary shelters for displaced families.

Dr M Sulaiman, a Pakistani-American surgeon living in New Orleans for the past 25 years, was among those who volunteered.

"For days, we worked in makeshift camps with people who had suddenly lost everything," he told me as we drove to see the devastated eastern parts of his city.

"There was no food, no place to sleep or sanitary facilities. It was a nerve wrecking experience," he said.

The hurricane killed over 1,000 people while hundreds of thousands were forced to flee homes. Eighty percent of New Orleans was submerged.

Along with the most of the city's infrastructure, Hindu, Muslim and Sikh worship sites were also destroyed.

New Orleans shop owner Mohammad Ishtiaq
This is supposed to be a bustling tourist town. Just look around you. The streets are empty and there are no customers
New Orleans shop owner Mohammad Ishtiaq

The Sikh Gurdwara in East New Orleans was reportedly submerged under nine feet of water.

But that did not stop a determined American Sikh community from organising a rescue boat operation to recover the holy Sikh scriptures, the Guru Granth Sahib, from the temple.

"We hold the Guru Granth Sahib in highest esteem. Bringing it out unharmed from that filthy waste was very important to us," recalls Sumir Kaur Chehl, president of the local Sikh Society.

A resident of Baton Rouge, Louisiana's capital 90 minutes west of New Orleans, she is one of the many Indians who opened their doors to the homeless.

The hurricane severely damaged a two-storey Hindu temple of greater New Orleans.

In Chalmette, East New Orleans, the Yaseen Mosque and adjoining Islamic School were seriously damaged by flooding and extensive wind damage.


One year after the disaster, like much of the neighbourhood, the school remains roofless and deserted while reconstruction of the mosque has only started recently.

President Bush says the federal government has earmarked $110bn for recovery and rebuilding. But most people here are critical of his handling of the disaster.

Indian and Pakistani traders in New Orleans's popular French Quarter describe official recovery efforts as too little, too late.

New Orleans skyline
The hurricane has meant that New Orleans may never be the same

"Rebuilding is slow, business is less than half of what it used to be before Katrina," says Murli Daswari, a souvenir shop trader from Puna, India.

"At this pace, I don't think I'll survive much longer in business."

Strolling in the city's popular flea Market, I come across Mohammad Ishtiaq, another dejected shop owner. He came to New Orleans from Karachi ten years ago.

"This is supposed to be a bustling tourist town. Just look around you. The streets are empty and there are no customers," he points out.

As the communities here observe the first anniversary of the Katrina disaster, there is one issue over which most people are in agreement with President Bush.

The road to reconstruction will be long, hard and uphill.

And even when the work is completed, New Orleans may never be the same again.

So people take comfort in reminding one another that if they can survive Katrina, they can survive anything.

People in New Orleans trying to rebuild their lives

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