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Last Updated: Thursday, 1 September 2005, 02:41 GMT 03:41 UK
Katrina scatters a grim diaspora
By Will Walden
BBC News, in Baton Rouge, La & Memphis, Tn

The only certainty here now is uncertainty.

Across the south hundreds of thousands of Americans have been unceremoniously dumped: displaced by Katrina in rest stops and hotel lobbies; among strangers in shelters and in hospitals.

And for most there is no going back, for weeks, and more probably, months.
Three-year-old girl who fled to Florida with her parents
Many families who made it out have no place to stay

They sleep where they can.

The lucky ones, and they are indeed the lucky ones, have hotel rooms.

Entire families crowd into one room with little information, power that comes and goes, and no air conditioning.

For some, who thought initially Katrina wasn't as bad as the authorities had predicted, fate has dealt them a cruel hand.

Having checked out for the long journey home, they now find themselves back in hotel lobbies across the state pleading to have their rooms back.

The rooms of course have been filled with others seeking refuge.

Doubles

In one hotel, the only TV that works is in the bar, so the barman is doing a roaring trade in doubles, and strong doubles at that.

Little money appears to be changing hands.

Destroyed houses in Long Beach, Mississippi
Returning south is no longer an option
People can't watch the big American TV networks as there is no cable, and no one to repair it.

So instead, they watch the local news stations - stations offering just a snapshot of the worsening picture in Biloxi, Gulfport and in particular New Orleans.

And that's where the doubles come in.

Most people in Baton Rouge are from the suburbs around the Big Easy, and every now and again they'll let out an audible sigh as they recognize their own community and presumably their own house, submerged at best, but in many cases, simply not there anymore.

At this point most reach for the cellphone in the hope that those who stayed are safe.

But there is no dialing tone, just a recorded message that says "Sorry - all circuits are busy - please try again later".

It is the new norm. These people have nowhere to go.

Airport focus

At Baton Rouge airport they have been sleeping on the floor.

Tourists, victims, people who are simply stuck.

They are smiling, but the smiles are tired, worn and very, very battered
In the case of those who have lost homes, and there are many, it is a case of waiting for flights that will take them to relatives across the United States.

All this takes place within earshot of the constant clatter of rotor blades.

The men and women of the Louisiana Air National Guard are busy loading food, water and medical supplies onto Blackhawk helicopters.

There are many helicopters, landing and leaving like a bizarre scene from Vietnam portrayed by the Hollywood studios.

Only this scene is real.

At the airport there is cable TV. So no-one talks, they just sit and watch. Not since the aftermath of 9/11 does it seem America's airports have been so quiet or so focused on one thing.

No road south

And in Memphis, Tennessee, they are 400 miles north but they have much in common with that other famous American city of music, New Orleans.

This is not least because Memphis, functioning normally with power food and running water, is now home to many from New Orleans.

Today, less than 36 hours after initial relief turned to horror, they are packing their cars again and heading off.

Normally they would be heading south - back home to Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama.

On Wednesday I watched one young couple packing their smart VW Golf. They had two suitcases and a couple of backpacks and could have been starting a road trip or a holiday.

They are not, of course.

They are headed to Florida and the safety of mum and dad. What they have with them is all they have left.

Typically they are smiling, but the smiles are tired, worn and very, very battered.


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