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Last Updated: Wednesday, 28 September 2005, 14:12 GMT 15:12 UK
Nightmare in New Orleans
By Matt Frei
BBC Washington correspondent

On a bright early September day, I found myself driving down the wrong way of a narrow interstate ramp, past three police cars.

Matt Frei
Matt Frei: The new normal of New Orleans was bizarre

My large SUV was pulling a boat. I should have been arrested on the spot but traffic rules were clearly not a priority.

The correct road onto the interstate had been blocked by a giant McDonald's sign, toppled by fierce winds and now beached upside down: a large golden W.

At the top of the ramp we stopped to ask soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division - more at home on the streets of Tikrit than New Orleans - for directions to "Camp Greyhound", the new jail that had been erected for looters in the old bus station.

The conversation was brief and polite and no-one mentioned the decomposing corpse that had been lying on the interstate for six days, or was it seven?

We had filmed firemen with their rifles watching the flames - they didn't have any water

Overhead, Black Hawk helicopters filled the sky as if the Big Easy had become Falluja.

In the distance a huge fire darkened the swampy horizon. Was it another paint plant? Or a hotel set ablaze by looters, or a house ignited by an open gas valve?

Earlier in the week we had filmed firemen with their rifles watching the flames. They didn't have any water.

In the port, a US aircraft carrier had moored in a place usually reserved for Mississippi steamers.

Authorities' failings

The new normal of New Orleans was certainly bizarre. Sometimes it was distressing.

My American colleagues and I were appalled by the conditions at the now infamous Convention Center.

Canal Street in New Orleans under water
The city became a watery hell

The squalid nature of the conditions there has been well documented. What distressed and puzzled us was the inability of the authorities - federal, state and local - to provide even a minimum of relief to thousands of people who were mostly desperate and sometimes dying.

The resources were there. Hundreds of trucks and buses were waiting on the interstate nearby. The skies were abuzz with helicopters. The networks had publicised the inhumane conditions for three nights running.

And yet someone had failed to tell the evacuees who was going to help them, how and when.

Apparently the American Red Cross had been informed that the situation was inflammatory and dangerous.

As journalists who spent many hours in the bowels of the Convention Center we encountered less violence and resentment than you probably do on any given night outside the Hat and Stick at closing time.

What New Orleans really needed in those days of September were a few kindly souls from Oxfam, Medecins Sans Frontieres or the American Peace Corps, who were uninhibited by the long legacy of distrust between rich and poor, black and white.

Media rage

The outrage and criticism were widely shared. The Economist, not known for its Bush bashing, thundered about "The Shaming of America" on its cover.

The New York Times said that Brian Williams, the new anchor of NBC's evening news, did with Katrina what the legendary Walter Cronkite had done with the Vietnam War.

President Bush comforts some victims of Hurricane Katrina
Offering comfort, but President Bush has been widely criticised
Even Fox News, the White House's favourite network, was incandescent.

Finally President Bush, usually loath to admit the mistakes of his administration, issued several meae culpae on prime-time television.

Katrina had managed to unite America's divided camps in the recognition that this had been a failure of government at just about every level.

I will also remember the lighter moments. The 300lb woman who had been rescued by six burly firemen from Kansas and hoisted onto the front of a Florida fan boat.

Like an overweight Queen Victoria she rode through the black waters of this hellish Venice waving at passing boats and laughing hysterically. In her hair she wore defiantly pink curlers.

The heavily armed sheriff who was reduced to punting his boat down a reeking Grand Canal like a gondolier.

Bus stop bureau

Then there was my friend Alec Russell from the Daily Telegraph, whose mobile phone didn't work but who found that the city's pay phones were in perfect order.

A man pushes a shopping cart through the damaged French Quarter
Hurricane Katrina has left the city stunned

He resorted to sitting in the middle of the road on an armchair and filing to a copytaker in London.

For the first few days the BBC New Orleans bureau was a bus stop with a rain cover in the middle of Canal Street.

There was one caravan and one satellite truck, which belonged to our US partners ABC - without whose support none of our stuff would have made it to air.

By the end of the week this portion of Canal Street looked like a media caravanserai: more satellite dishes than woks in a Chinese restaurant, more boats than a Dorset marina and a car park full of RVs and mobile homes.

Waders and sandals

There was also a growing collection of accessories for negotiating the noxious brew that now filled the streets of New Orleans.

ABC brought in a new line of wellies and waders for their superstars. The rule seemed to be the more prominent the "on-air talent", the higher the boots.

Good Morning America superstar Diane Sawyer sported a pair of waders that virtually went up to her neck.

I have to say I stuck to my Birkenstock sandals and then bathed my feet in disinfectant.

There was, of course, no tap water. At first, most journalists slept in their cars. Then we upgraded to the Quarterhouse Inn, an abandoned hotel in the French Quarter.

On the first night I had the entire third floor to myself. Some of the rooms were filthy and had been abandoned in haste. There was an unspeakable smell.

Correspondents appearing on TV were allowed one shower every three days

Room 314 had clean sheets. It became my home for 10 days. There was no light, no running water and because the windows were welded shut the temperature must have reached 110F.

If I moved very slowly and doused myself with a bottle of Evian I could gradually control the sweating.

In the middle of the night the only sound came from the helicopters hovering above the darkened French Quarter, scouring the streets with their searchlights.

It was very eerie and reminded me of The Shining. I don't think I will be taking my family back to the Quarterhouse Inn.

A few days later something happened that changed everyone's lives. Two giant RVs, or recreational vehicles, pulled up next to our bus stop.

The last time I had seen a swanky tour bus like this was during the presidential campaign. George Bush and John Kerry each had one.

Scene of tsunami damage in Banda Aceh
The tsunami was unprecedented on many levels
Tinted windows. A glimpse of leather couches. The hint of forbidden luxury. A blast of air conditioning.

Now it wasn't George Bush waving to us from the front seat, but New York producer Jeremy Hillman, who had rented these mobile hotels in Tennessee and Texas and filled them with water, microwave meals and sacks of nuts.

Correspondents appearing on TV were allowed one shower every three days. Everyone else had to wait four days. Phew!

Other disasters

There have been worse conditions on other stories - mainly in the Third World - but it was strange to be camping in the middle of a major US city.

I have covered several natural disasters, including the floods in Mozambique, the tsunami and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Katrina became worthy of a whole Hollywood genre of disaster films in which American cities are turned into the playthings of the gods

Each story dominated the news for a particular reason.

In Mozambique in 1999 it wasn't the number of casualties that propelled it onto the front pages - cyclones in Bangladesh kill far greater numbers each year - but the unprecedented images of helicopters plucking people from tree tops that captured the imagination of editors and audiences.

That story was Top Gear meets Apocalypse Now.

The tsunami - perhaps the biggest natural disaster story of the television age - was unprecedented on many different levels: geographic scale, variety of victims - from poor Sri Lankan farmers to Western tourists - and, of course, images worthy of the fifth circle of hell.

Until last January "tsunamis" had been the stuff of Japanese wood prints and geography classes.

Katrina preyed on the imagination for other reasons. The scale may turn out be relatively small. The deaths could be no more than 1,500. Still a very significant number, but a much lower toll than the 10,000 originally mentioned by the outspoken mayor of New Orleans.

If the story had been confined to the destruction of the Gulf Coast, it would have disappeared after a few days.

But by flooding New Orleans, a great American city, and then perverting the order of things, Katrina became worthy of a whole Hollywood genre of disaster films in which American cities are turned into the playthings of the gods.


SEE ALSO
Weathering the storm
07 Sep 05 |  NewsWatch
Blair admits BBC Katrina disquiet
25 Sep 05 |  UK Politics

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