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Last Updated: Wednesday, 7 September 2005, 14:05 GMT 15:05 UK
Weathering the storm
Alastair Leithead
Alastair had to resort to living in the hire car
Alastair Leithead caught the last plane to New Orleans from Miami before the airport was closed because of Hurricane Katrina. That was on the night of Saturday, August 27.

In the extraordinary days that followed, he was the BBC's main source of news from within the city. Here's his account of the challenges he faced in reporting the news.

I had my first encounter with Katrina in Miami. It caused a lot of damage and left a number of people dead. When it looked as if it was going to hit New Orleans I was told by people who chart these storms that the city might suffer disastrous consequences.

When I arrived, I had to queue five hours to get a hire car. Everyone was trying to get a car to head out of town. All the 4x4s had gone and I got the heaviest one I could find, a Lincoln town car, the sort that diplomats use.

Most shops were shutting down but I got some big bottles of water, tins of food and biscuits. Then I checked in to the Holiday Inn where I could set up my portable satellite system. I filed my first report to News 24.

The weather was getting worse and as Katrina struck there was all sorts of debris flying past my twelfth floor window. Then I became really scared. The windows of the hotel were shaking and bending. I could see the hotel opposite with its windows already blown out and I thought that if mine went all my equipment would be sucked out.

Cars tossed around

The noise was intense from the wind and rain. Everything was breaking up; there were bangs and cracks like gunfire. Then the power went.

I walked down to the ground floor and there was a small area which was sheltered. I saw cars being picked up and tossed around, and metal street signs flying through the air like arrows.

At this time I was managing to file reports to just about everyone: the main TV and radio bulletins, Five Live, World Service, BBC World, everyone was taking stuff.

During a lull, I went out into the street to get an idea of the scale of the damage. At that time there wasn't much flooding in the French quarter where I was. I was shooting material on a DV camera with a tripod. Then the tripod broke and for the next three days I had to do pieces holding the camera at arms length and trying not to make it obvious what I was doing.

People make their way down Canal Street in New Orleans, during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina
People make their way down Canal Street in New Orleans
I drove to the flyover that circles the city and then saw street after street under about two metres of water. People were wading up to their necks or swimming to reach higher ground.

When I got back to the hotel it was closing down but they let me go up the stairs to my room to get my food and water and clothes. This was Tuesday and by now days were beginning to merge into each other. I was filing almost non-stop.

Snatches of sleep

At one time the batteries on my sat phone failed while I was on air to the Six O'Clock news. The mobile phone system was down and I was using the car's cigarette lighter to power my kit.

With no hotels functioning, I was reduced to living in the car and getting snatches of sleep.

As the water rose higher, people started to panic and the looting began. It made me think; when people are desperate is it looting or survival? If they're ransacking a supermarket maybe they just need food. However, a sense of lawlessness was spreading and the police looked as if they had lost control.

A man gathers his belongings in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans
A man gathers his belongings in the wake of Hurricane Katrina
My car was running low on fuel so I had to stop using air conditioning - and that was uncomfortable. Finally, NBC arrived with a satellite truck and they let me use it to file.

My shirts were dirty and stained with sweat and so I used an old Africa trick of pouring water over myself before going on air. It makes the shirt look clean and newly ironed.

On Wednesday, I found that the Sheraton was still open but it was full. They didn't want to let me in but a manager took pity on me and let me sleep on the ballroom floor. I slept for six hours, the sweetest rest I've had in years.



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