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Last Updated: Sunday, 11 September 2005, 06:02 GMT 07:02 UK
Inside the hurricane zone
BBC News website reporter Richard Allen Greene is travelling through the stricken neighbourhoods of New Orleans. Here he shares his experience of the journey and the people he met along the way.

Gulfport, Mississippi: Saturday, 10 September, 1700GMT

Americans believe very deeply in two things: business and God.

Stopping back in Gulfport on my way home, I saw plenty of evidence of the former. There is still a lot of military traffic, but the city is clearly open for business, less than two weeks after Hurricane Katrina.

Shops and restaurants proudly displayed "We're open" signs, even as blue tarpaulins were being fastened onto the remains of their roofs.

Generator shop
Generators are much in demand
The area near the beachfront is technically a closed police zone, but even past the barricades at least two shops were open - a pawnshop and another selling blue jeans.

Heavy lifting equipment was clearing away massive rubble around the casinos, including the broken remains of lorries. Meanwhile, new ones were already rolling through town to replace them.

And on Highway 49, just as you pull into town, Cliff Dann and Paul Clark have set up by the side of the road to sell generators and mobile homes.

They drove in from Florida a day after the storm, Cliff says, and have sold more than 300 generators so far.

No matter what happens, it seems, Americans will dust themselves off and get back to business. (In fact, I saw my first "I survived the Big One - Hurricane Katrina" T-shirts today.)

But they will also ask themselves why such tragedies happen. Deeply religious, they ask where God was when the winds blew.

New Orleans street preachers made homeless by Katrina hand out aid and salvation

For some, it seems, nothing can shake their faith.

Col Joe Spraggins is the head of emergency operations in Harrison County, which includes Gulfport and Biloxi.

For days after the storm, he gave twice-daily briefings about how recovery was progressing.

But once, he looked up from his facts and figures and maps to address the broader picture.

"For so many years," he said, "we've had everything so easy, so perfect. When God gives us a disaster, we have to find out why. It might be to bring us back to reality."

Baton Rouge: Friday, 9 September, 1600GMT

Who is to blame? It's a very human response to a catastrophe like the bungled rescue operation following Hurricane Katrina.

But it's also an ugly one, driven partly by the intense partisan mood in the United States. President Bush is a Republican. Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco and Senator Mary Landrieu are Democrats.

Nationally, much of the anger has focused on national organisations, like the Federal Emergency Management Agency (Fema), or on President Bush himself, who was seen golfing the day after the storm hit.

But here in Baton Rouge, the Louisiana state capital, a talk radio host is venting his fury at Gov Blanco, who, he says, blocked federal relief from coming in and refused to hand control of the state's national guard to the president.

"When is she going to stand up in front of the microphones and answer some questions? I'm not blaming her," he adds, entirely disingenuously. "I just want some answers."

But like a tropical storm at sea, he changes directions unexpectedly and demands that his producer phone Fema's emergency help line to see what kind of response evacuees receive - if any.

There is plenty of blame to go around, he concludes.

Shortly after his rant - and entirely unrelated to it, I would imagine - Fema director Mike Brown is relieved of his responsibility for Katrina relief. A first sign, perhaps, of the first head to roll.

Bogalusa, Louisiana: Thursday, 8 September, 1700GMT

Louisiana state highway 21 must have been an extraordinarily beautiful drive two weeks ago - in fact, it's officially labelled one of the state's "Scenic Byways".

It winds its way north through dense forest, traditional mailboxes on posts by the side of the road marking the houses in the wood.

Tree downed by Hurricane Katrina
Highway 21 is lined with trees thrown down by the wind
But it's hard to see the forest, for the trees that have been snapped in two draw the eye. Like vandalism that says "Katrina was here", the firs are splintered, lying at jazzy angles, fallen on houses, suspended from downed power lines.

Crews have cleared the road and are industriously sawing up the remains of the trees into wood that can be hauled away, but it still looks like the forest has a long, gaping wound.

Don Brussard, a volunteer who drove from Baton Rouge to Bogalusa to hand out free hot meals, says he was amazed at the damage.

And Joshua Bridges, 84, who lives in Bogalusa, has seen similar destruction around his own home: "Trees you couldn't get your arms around have been torn down."

Baton Rouge: Thursday 1340GMT

Visiting a maternity ward at a hospital here, I met a new mother who was distraught at having been separated from her three older children.

She was deeply confused, thinking they were still in the New Orleans Superdome, even though it was finally completely evacuated several days ago.

So I take something else she says with a pinch of salt: that she was left under the bridge near the Superdome for three days, heavily pregnant, because rescuers saved elderly and disabled people first.

Whether what she said is entirely accurate seems almost beside the point. People were left there far longer than they should have been, and a Norwegian journalist who has been in the city since before the storm is enraged about it.

"We could get in and out by boat - why couldn't the government?" he demanded as we left the new mother's room. "It's a scandal."

It is a question even children are asking. One of my colleagues from Newsround, the BBC's children's news programme, took questions from her audience after reporting from New Orleans for several days.

"How could you get in and out? Why do you have food and water and petrol?" one of the young people wanted to know.

The answer, of course, is that when push comes to shove, the BBC has the funds to get these things.

But large an organisation as it is, the BBC is a molehill compared to the mountain that is the US government.

Congress and George W Bush are both setting up inquiries into what went wrong. The children who watch Newsround will be looking forward to an answer.

Baton Rouge: Wednesday, 7 September, 2030GMT

Don't call Mary Ann Mercier and her husband Eric "refugees". Like a lot of people who fled Hurricane Katrina, they bristle at the term.

Eric and Mary Ann Mercier
The Merciers are staying with their son
"It's inappropriate," Mary Ann, a science teacher, says firmly. "We were not part of a combat."

"We were victims of a catastrophe," Eric adds.

The two of them got out of their home in east New Orleans before the storm.

They are planning to stay "as long as it takes the city to dry out" - Mary Ann is looking into working in the local school district for a while - but then they plan to go back to New Orleans.

In the meantime, they are amused by at least one aspect of their situation - staying with their son, who is studying nursing at Louisiana State University.

"The kids are taking care of us," Eric says. "It's payback time."

Baton Rouge: Wednesday 1440GMT

When the radio announcer switched to French, I did a double-take. What is going on here?

There must still be French speakers in the bayou, I thought, even 202 years after Napoleon sold this land to the United States to raise money for wars against the English.

Then I realised - even with my non-existent French - what I was hearing.

It was a plea for foreign nationals evacuated from New Orleans to contact the French consulate.

Later, the announcement was repeated in Spanish, with a number for the Mexican consulate.

It's not only the people of New Orleans itself who are frantic about their loved ones, or even only Americans. All around the world, families are still holding their breath, hoping against hope their loved ones got out alive.

Baton Rouge: Tuesday, 6 September, 2200GMT

I am getting used to the four-hour drive it takes to get 70 miles from Baton Rouge to New Orleans, but the return journey has always been a breeze.

Until today.

Today, it took just as long to get into Baton Rouge as it did to get into New Orleans.

Going into the Big Easy, the problem is roadblocks.

Going into the state capital, it is gridlock. Evacuees - they hate being called refugees, apparently - have reportedly doubled the size of the population here.

With Tuesday being the first day of the new school year and the first day back to work after a long weekend, traffic was out of control.

People will certainly not be allowed back into New Orleans for at least a month, so those who have fled here seem likely to stay here.

Baton Rouge was publicly proud of having taken in so many people, as well it should be.

But crime is reportedly on the rise. Traffic may soon be the least of the problems here.

The French Quarter, New Orleans: Tuesday 1715GMT

New Orleans has turned a corner. Yes, emergency boats are still out combing the water-logged streets for survivors, and yes, it will be weeks before the city is dry enough for anyone even to know what can be saved and what will have to be bulldozed.

But the army is out in force and looting seems to be in precipitous decline - and today one of the city's main canals was repaired.

Mayor Ray Nagin said after a helicopter tour that perhaps only 60% of the city was flooded, down from 80% at the worst point.

So while this may quite not be the beginning of the Crescent City's recovery, it feels like - as Winston Churchill might have said - the beginning of the beginning.

But even once repair and reconstruction begin in earnest, more suffering awaits those caught up in Hurricane Katrina.

I have reported on post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), the mental trauma often experienced by survivors of horrifying experiences. And while I hate to think of everything as a nail merely because I have a hammer, I am already seeing the signs of PTSD among people I talk to.

Perhaps the five-year veteran of the New Orleans police who spoke to me in the French Quarter always had that intense nervous energy. Perhaps his eyes always darted around as he conversed with people.

Or perhaps he has been traumatised by having spent a week at the Superdome, where refugees from the storm were trapped in what everyone agrees was a living hell.

Law enforcement officials and national guard troops - who were there to maintain order - instead set up camp and huddled in a corner for their own protection, he said.

"It was too hot to sleep in the day and too dangerous to sleep at night," a colleague of his piped up.

And the storm itself made an incredible impression on the officer, whom I won't name because he was not supposed to speak to the press.

"I can't even gauge the speed of the wind, but I was looking out the window of the Superdome and everything was going sideways.

"I'm not afraid of anything," he said. "And I was terrified."

Saint Charles Parish, north east of New Orleans: Tuesday 1315GMT

A huge oil refinery sprawls out in both directions from the road into New Orleans. Oil is as important an industry on this Gulf Coast as it is in the more famous gulf in the Middle East.

Some experts fear that the needs of the oil industry may have inadvertently robbed New Orleans of protection from the storm surge that turned the city from Amsterdam into Venice.

Helicopter drops sandbags on to a breached floodwall
Engineers are hard at work repairing the city's flood defences

New Orleans lies at the mouth of the Mississippi River, North America's mightiest river system.

From time immemorial, the river has been depositing silt in the Mississippi Delta, creating a buffer zone between the city and the Gulf of Mexico.

But man has insisted on controlling the Mississippi for the convenience of business and industry.

Engineers have dammed and lined the river to keep it tamed, severely reducing the size of the delta in the process.

So when Katrina hit, New Orleans had little protection from one of the greatest storm surges America has ever seen.

Today, engineers are starting to pump out the water that storm surge deposited. Engineering helping to repair the damage that engineering caused.

Experts are pleading with government and business to think seriously before New Orleans embarks on its next major engineering project - rebuilding itself after the storm.

Highway 61 North, heading to Baton Rouge: Monday, 5 September, 1530GMT

I didn't make it into New Orleans today - I was distracted by a family on a rescue mission and lost my place in the queue.

After parting with the family, I headed back north to Baton Rouge, revisiting Highway 61.

I checked the odometer...and found the queue on Highway 61 was about 15 miles long
Only then did I get an idea of the magnitude of traffic trying to get into New Orleans on this, the first day people are being let back into part of the city to inspect their homes.

It was clear there was no way I would be able to count the cars on the road, so I checked the odometer instead - and found the queue on Highway 61 was about 15 miles long.

And there were more cars backed up at a checkpoint further up the road - a three-mile queue.

I regret not getting into New Orleans today - but more importantly, I hope everyone sweltering in their cars does.

Highway 61 South, en route to New Orleans: Monday 1320GMT

The rumours and speculation I have been hearing are correct. People are abandoning New Orleans for good.

As cars inched their way towards the city, I talked to Jerry Goff, 58, who retired two years ago after 33 years working in oil refinery.

Jerry Goff
Jerry Goff is moving his family away from New Orleans
He and his wife Shelly left their house in Marrero on the west bank of the Mississippi on Sunday, before the storm hit, and took shelter with his parents in Alexandria, central Louisiana.

They watched on TV as the storm battered their home town.

"It was bad. Real bad," Jerry says.

Their house was three feet deep in water, Shelley's brother told them before leaving the city himself on Thursday.

They're going to have a look for themselves today, Jerry says, but then they're going back to Alexandria - where he is enrolling his three children in a local school.

Gonzales, Louisiana: Monday 1120GMT

Today is the Labor Day holiday in the US, traditionally one of the busiest driving weekends of the year.

In fact, there's an old joke: If all the cars in America were lined up end-to-end, it would probably be Labor Day.

Messages to the world and the neighbours

The main highway from Baton Rouge into New Orleans surpasses the stereotype this morning.

This is my second morning driving into the city as dawn breaks, and today the traffic is even worse than yesterday.

Emergency vehicles scream their way south - police cars, ambulances, hazardous material disposal teams, and pick-up truck after truck hauling small boats with outboard motors to search the still-flooded areas of the city.

Yesterday there was another type of rescue vehicle on the road as well, America's famous snub-nosed yellow school bus. A queue of them at least a mile (1.6km) long trundled towards New Orleans from Houston, Texas, to bring survivors out of the city.

But today there's extra traffic as well.

Monday is the first day residents of some areas of New Orleans are officially permitted back to check their property.

They are allowed to be in the city from 6am to 6pm local time, and many obviously got on the road as early as possible.

They've waited a full week since the storm hit - and with traffic moving at this pace, they will have to wait at least several hours longer.

The flooded streets of New Orleans: Sunday, 4 September, 1600GMT

At this point, many of the people still in flooded sections of New Orleans are there because they refuse to leave. Quite a few, it seems, want to stay behind to care for pets.

Ron Henry and Robyn Mooney are volunteers who have been carrying out boat rescues for the past two days. Yesterday, they said, they found a guy hiding in his house with his two Dobermans.

Judy Winkel
Judy Winkel refused to leave to look after her four dogs
Determined to get him out, they went so far as to threaten to shoot the dogs - but in the end, on advice from their command post, they let him be.

"It wasn't worth getting into a gunfight over it," Robyn said.

And in fact, although Ron and Robyn have been shouting at people that they have to leave or the police will come and take them away in handcuffs due to the mandatory evacuation order, many of the people they found on their first run today insisted on staying behind.

Judy Winkel's street is chest-deep in water, but her front porch is dry, and from it she defiantly told Ron and Robyn she was staying with her four dogs.

She said her husband was out getting water, and sure enough, Darren Engeron paddled up in a canoe a moment later.

He too insisted he was staying: "I'm a survivor," he said. "I will find water."

It became clear that Ron and Robyn could not convince them to leave, so in a parting gesture, they gave Judy and Darren some advice on how to avoid the patrols.

"Take all this stuff off your front porch. The rescue teams look for clothes drying outside," Robyn said as Ron gunned the air boat's noisy engine to full power.

A few streets away, the people gathered on Bernard Topping's front porch were having what looked like a regular Sunday-morning chat in the sunshine.

William Branch
William was relieved to know Lake Charles had not been affected
True, the porch was only an inch or two above the waterline, but no-one seemed to mind - except, perhaps, for William Branch.

He wanted to know how things were in the nearby town of Lake Charles.

"Fine," said Robyn. "They didn't get hit at all."

William was relieved: His wife and grandchildren were there, he said.

Ron and Robyn were keen for him to get on board so he could join them, and he wavered for a moment, but ultimately decided to stay.

The folks he was with seemed happy to be where they were - Bernard snapped pictures of the rescue boat, while Ron chatted with a man on the porch about his boat's engine.

But when we met up with Al Coffee at the end of the rescue run, he told a story that put me in mind of William Branch and his family in Lake Charles.

Al had found a couple of guys who didn't want to leave. He found out they both had daughters, so his crew phoned them from their boat so they could plead with the men to ride out.

One refused, even with his daughter screaming at him down the line from Florida, but the other one gave in to his daughter's entreaties from Houston.

Calling William's wife in Lake Charles never occurred to me. I can't help but wonder what would have happened if it had.

Jefferson Parish, Louisiana: Sunday 1250GMT

The sunrise over Lake Pontchartrain was beautiful but it revealed my first sight of the devastation Hurricane Katrina had wrought on New Orleans.

I was travelling with Al Coffee, a retired restaurateur who has been doing voluntary rescue with his own boat, petrol and food for the past week.

Al Coffee
Al Coffee feels the Louisiana National Guard should be in charge
Before he talked his way through a police road block to get us into the city he mentioned that the 82nd Airborne had been sent into New Orleans, to help restore order.

The 82nd are among the most hardened infantry troops in the US army. They were at the forefront of the invasion of Iraq and Al Coffee is livid that they have been sent to New Orleans.

Al himself served in the National Guard and helped with rescue operations after Hurricane Camille in 1969.

He thinks public-order operations like this one should be the responsibility of the Louisiana National Guard. But the National Guard is in Iraq.

Baton Rouge, Louisiana: Sunday 0200GMT

It was with a curious and very unexpected reluctance that I drove west out of Gulfport towards New Orleans this afternoon. I can't help but agree with a colleague that "the New Orleans story" is overshadowing "the Mississippi story".

The horror of what is happening in New Orleans is undeniable, with its flooding, fires and lawlessness. (When disease sets in, as it undoubtedly will soon, the Big Easy will have its fourth horseman.)

New Orleans holds a special place in this country's heart, having given birth to the now-universal Cajun-style cooking, glorious jazz, and the curious French-inflected accent which all Americans think they can mimic, though none really can.

A man struggles past the Superdome in New Orleans
New Orleans holds a special place in the country's heart
If most Americans think of Mississippi at all, they probably think of the 1960s racist murders that inspired the film Mississippi Burning.

It's one of the country's poorest states, with a per capita income two-thirds that of the nation as a whole. Only one in six Mississippians has a university degree, while one in four Americans does.

And it is about one-third black, giving it the highest percentage of African-Americans of any state in the US. It depends heavily on casinos and oil, both industries smashed by Katrina. (Oil will recover quickly.)

Looking out at the wreckage of Gulfport's shoreline, I wondered how long it would take to clean up - and how long it would have taken to clean up had it been, say, one of the wealthy retirement communities in Florida.

But drive to Baton Rouge I did, and was stunned at what I found here: not only electricity and running water, but joggers striding past neatly trimmed lawns. In two hours I have driven from a war zone to suburban America.

Tomorrow I head into the Big Easy.

Gulfport: Saturday, 3 September, 2000GMT

Harrison County's Emergency Operations Center is becoming more shipshape by the minute - a generator is running power to the building, the Outback Restaurant has set up a huge grill and is handing out hamburgers and chicken, and men wearing orange Harrison County Inmate Worker T-shirts are busily mopping the floors.

The "inmate workers" are prisoners from the local jail who are helping with disaster relief.

Woman sifts through rubble of her home in Gulfport
Many buildings in Gulfport were completely destroyed
One of the local sheriff's deputies told me they were volunteers. Better to be out in the fresh air than locked up inside, he said, but clammed up when I asked more questions.

A moment later, Inmate Worker Steve Duke confirmed that he had indeed chosen to help out.

The inmates get time off their sentences for doing community service labour, he said - 30 days' reduction in sentence for 30 days' work is the normal trade, but the prisoners are getting unspecified "executive pay" for the disaster relief effort.

But Duke was not working to get time off his sentence, he said - he has only 29 days left to serve. He was doing it because, as he said, "I live here too."

Highway 10 West, Mississippi: Saturday 1700GMT

Driving west to see the destruction in Bay St Louis, a small town near Mississippi's border with Louisiana, I picked up a New Orleans radio station playing jazz.

Not just any old jazz, either, but When the Saints Go Marching In - the signature tune of New Orleans jazz - with wailing, screaming horns walking a tightrope between maniacal laughter and uncontrollable tears.

My first thought was that it could be meant as a welcome to the troops who have finally arrived to try to impose some order on the chaotic city.

But listening to those trumpets, I wondered if it wasn't a more fundamental cri de coeur, a cry from the heart of the descendants of the original jazzmen who turned their own sorrow, pain and suffering into America's native music.

Gulfport: Saturday 1530GMT

Amid all the destruction of lives, homes, infrastructure and businesses in rural Mississippi, some people still have the energy to lament something else Katrina took away: the state's heritage.

Kelly Robinson, a public information officer with the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency, reminded me today that the beachfront was until this week lined with dozens of grand antebellum mansions.

US southerners tell their tales of hurricane survival

"These were 150-to-200-year-old homes. These old mansions are just gone, nothing left of them but the base." Oak trees hundreds of years old have been uprooted as well, "plucked like a tulip would be," she said.

It is not clear that all of the region's residents will mourn one of the state's most significant historic sites - the home of Jefferson Davis, the first and last president of the Confederate States of America, which fought the North in the US Civil War.

"The slave quarters are gone," Ms Robinson said. "The carriage is lying in a heap of rubble. It will be a miracle if the house itself is not destroyed. It's still standing, but it won't be repaired.

"History is gone," she said. "History has destroyed history."

Gulfport: Saturday 1400GMT

For all the talk of help on the way, nothing has changed on the beachfront at Gulfport since the storm hit five days ago.

Huge lorries meant to haul tropical fruit lie where the storm left them - upturned, worse than useless, now merely rubble to be hauled away themselves.

A fruit truck upturned by hurricane Katrina
Vehicles lie overturned on the Gulfport beachfront

And there is more dangerous waste lying on the beach - 40 tons of chicken and a million pounds of shrimp had been sitting in containers on the beach when Katrina hit.

They are now scattered across the beachfront, rotting where they lay, a health hazard producing an awful stink.

And they are nearly unrecognisable - though I had been told where to find them, I walked past several before I realised what I was seeing.

My nose found them before my eyes did.

But by far the most unbearable smell comes from a seal, lying on its side and putrefying outside the salmon-coloured Copa Casino.

There are more humble reminders here, too, of the lives lost and destroyed - a wheelchair sitting abandoned, a videotape of The Big Bad Wolf, the fate of the child who owned it unknown.

Biloxi: Friday, 2 September, 2330GMT

Heading back into Biloxi to find out what people thought of President Bush's visit today, I saw a fierce sign in front of a house that had been chopped completely in two by a falling tree: You loot 'n' we shoot.

I wanted to get a picture, but I wasn't going to start shooting without permission, so I cautiously pulled into the driveway next door.

As I stepped out of the car, the man in front of the sign turned and reached into his pickup truck.

You loot 'n' we shoot sign in Biloxi
Taking a photo of this sign sparked an angry confrontation

I decided a slow, cautious approach would be safer than turning my back, and as luck would have it, when the guy turned back to me, his hands were empty and he was smiling.

I introduced myself and asked if I could take a photo of the sign.

Sure, the guy said, my son made it.

But just as I was pulling out my camera, an angry voice behind me called: "Hey! Whose truck is this in my driveway?"

I admitted it was mine and said I'd only be there for a minute while I took a picture.

"Well park it in his driveway!" she shouted. "I'm not telling you to move it - I'm calling the police!"

I grabbed a quick shot - for which the man I'd considered threatening made a peace sign - then scurried back to my vehicle to escape the wrath of the neighbour who turned out to be much fiercer.

I made my way down to the beachfront, where I met a construction worker called Ed Hess.

Deeply tanned, with greying hair reaching down towards his shoulders, he could not have been less moved by George Bush's stop in town.

"You really want to impress me? Come down here and work with me for a day hauling bricks. I've been toting water up nine flights of stairs. If he could keep up with me, that would impress me - otherwise it's just talk."

Water Park, outside Gulfport : Friday 1750GMT

Search and Rescue has set up a command post at the Water Park just outside of Gulfport, and it is a hive of activity first thing in the morning - highlighting yet another difference between aid workers, who are busy to the point of exhaustion, and those they have come to rescue, who have little to do but sit and wait.

Rescue units have come from as far away as Pennsylvania and New York City to aid more local ones from Alabama and Florida.

No-one here admits it, but hopes of finding trapped survivors must be fading. Col Joe Spraggins, head of the Harrison County Emergency Management Agency, says people can last for five to seven days without food or water, but in this heat that must be optimistic. And today is officially Day Four after Katrina.

Col Spraggins says three people were rescued on Thursday and 17 corpses were discovered.

So far, search and rescue teams are only following tips from the Office of Emergency Operations, not sweeping wide areas.

Gulfport, Mississippi : Friday 1310GMT

Gulfport, Mississippi, is only a short drive from Biloxi, but it feels like a different world. It was clearly poorer to begin with than Biloxi, with its once-attractive seafront historic preservation area of century-old homes.

Visitors to Gulfport, on the other hand, pass a series of pawnshops, discount stores and offers of cash loans with no credit checks.

Now, four days after Katrina stomped through, it feels like a curious mixture of ghost town and construction, or deconstruction, site. Military police control traffic at intersections, waving the little civilian traffic past non-working traffic lights, while massive earth-moving vehicles roar along the roads at their lumbering, deliberate pace.

Again and again, as I pass buildings smashed into firewood, I have to remind myself that this destruction was a random act of nature, because it looks so much like the product of furious anger.

Biloxi, Mississippi : Thursday, 1 September, 2030GMT

Mother Nature? I don't think so: The Nature that tore its way through Mississippi's Gulf Coast at the beginning of the week was more of a giant, petulant child having a particularly nasty tantrum.

Remains of a house in Biloxi
Stepping into nothing: Little is left standing in parts of Biloxi
Downed trees were the first evidence of the intensity of the storm, from the moment I headed out of Mobile.

As I headed towards the town of Biloxi, they became more frequent - and were joined by damaged billboards and even the occasional carcass lorries that had been hurled aside like children's discarded toys.

But, as is often the case with freaks of nature, for every twisted, broken wreck of a billboard, there were half a dozen untouched - many, with cruel irony, advertising the big stars due to perform at the casinos that made Biloxi a regional entertainment hub.

Somehow, I didn't think Merle Haggard's show is going to go on as advertised next week, despite his countenance beaming down along Highway 10.

Sally Lawson, who worked at one of the largest casinos, confirmed my suspicions as soon as I drove along Beach Boulevard.

Friends of hers had been killed trying to ride out the storm, her daughter was due to give birth at any moment, and she had no idea when she would ever get a pay-cheque again.

Petrol station, Mobile, Alabama : Thursday 1540GMT

London was revelling in an unexpectedly beautiful late-summer day when I left on Wednesday - the parks full of sunbathers, the DJs joyously playing In the Summertime and A Lovely Day.

But no sooner was I on the plane to Atlanta, Georgia, than the mood shifted.

"Can I borrow your newspaper?" a flight attendant asked the man in the seat behind me.

He gave her a blank look.

"I'm from New Orleans," she said.

His demeanour changed immediately: "Of course," he said. "Take it."

Suddenly the strangers on the plane were a community: "I'm from New Orleans, too."

Where? Where's your family? Are they OK? Yeah, they made it to Atlanta. They're in Houston. I'm from Florida, I know what you're going through.

On the ground in Mobile, Alabama - about an hour from Biloxi, Mississippi, one of the worst-affected areas - the mood of solidarity prevails.

Queue at a petrol station in Mobile
There is a sense of solidarity across the affected areas
The woman hiring out cars at the airport is hosting a family whose home was destroyed.

Warehouse-like supermarkets proudly hoist banners saying: "We're open."

And indeed, although the man next to me as we entered the store wondered aloud if there would be any food, the shelves were stocked and the famous Southern charm was much in evidence.

Every interaction included a question about how my day was going and a genuine-sounding wish that I have a good one.

And on the roads, the drivers are unfailingly polite in their enormous pick-up trucks and sport utility vehicles.

Even where I am at the moment - in a long queue for petrol.

The woman at the hire-car agency said her husband had waited three hours for fuel yesterday.

At times like these, I'm grateful for the Southern charm, because it's 90 degrees Fahrenheit (32C) at 10am.

It's going to get hotter and stay hot late into the night, and people seem to sense intuitively that politeness is more important than ever.




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