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Tuesday, September 06, 2005

The State of Law and Disorder

Law enforcement officials patroling New Orleans are admitting that even though the rescue service has speeded up, the chaos that was allowed to escalate has now merely become a state of "organized chaos".

The teams trying to provide law and order have described themselves as fighting "against odds hard to imagine."

"Television is creating a sympathetic image of white people fleeing, and black people caught up in a shoplifting orgy," Lawrence Aaron wrote in New Jersey's Record.

The tide of security seems to be rising by the hour, but at the same time as vast amounts of military and police presence patrol the streets, conversely citizens are free to drive on the wrong side of the road or even drink and drive without hindrance.

When the re-instatement of law and order had not been forthcoming by police officers, many of whom had turned in their badges after the hurricane hit, and the military had been delayed in entering the devasted areas, the emergence of looting meant ordinary civilians were forced to turn to the law of the old West: marshal law.

Only two days before, for young and old it was a case of everyone grab your gun and defend yourself.

An elderly lady with her 75 year old husband brandish guns. "We've been told to shoot anyone that comes on to our land by the sheriff," she says.

It all seems to resemble scenes from an apocalyptic computer game.

State of Emergency Widened

As neighbouring parishes around New Orleans begin to complain of being ignored by the media and rescue services, the state of emergency has been widened to cover ten states.

Meanwhile the draining of New Orleans has begun. It may be many weeks until all the stagnant and infected water is removed from the affected areas, with the estimated number of deaths being predicted to rise to as much as 10,000.

Due to the rising political backlash and an ever awakening criticial US media, George W. Bush has seen it necessary to re-visit the hurricane hit coast yesterday, but has yet to visit the worst stricken area of New Orleans.

As images of Bush comforting victims of the hurricane are broadcast across the globe, it is obvious that not only will Katrina have left moral dilemmas in its wake, it will also have left dilemmas on the US and global economy with the rising prices of oil after damage to oil refineries in that region and a port destroyed that was once the proud gate for import and exporting goods.

It is clear that this is the greatest challenge to politics-as-usual in America since the fall of Richard Nixon in the 1970s, and will ultimately be damaging to the US President's political career that so far has managed to avoid close scrutiny.

Mr Bush is failing to impress with his "folksy" style this time.

Awkward Questions

The hurricane has prompted awkward questions, with ex-President Bill Clinton even going so far as to express that a national enquiry into the now obvious government failure to respond adequately was necessary.

Mr Clinton and his wife, New York Senator Hillary Clinton, have raised the idea of a 9/11 style Congressional inquiry into Hurricane Katrina and the federal government's response.

Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid backed the idea. "Serious mistakes were made," he said.

The breakdown of the relief operation in New Orleans was the result of multiple failures by city, state and federal authorities.

There was no one cause. The failures began long before the hurricane with a gamble that a Category Four or Five hurricane would not strike New Orleans.

They continued with an inadequate evacuation plan and culminated in a relief effort hampered by lack of planning, supplies and manpower, and a breakdown in communications of the most basic sort.

On top of all this, there is the question of whether an earlier intervention by President Bush could have a made a big difference.

The Dead and The Destitute

Images from the stricken city of New Orleans show that many of those suffering in its streets and shelters are mainly black and poor.

The plight of those stranded amid the filth and the dead has highlighted a side of the city most tourists did not see - one in which two-thirds of its residents are black and more than a quarter live in poverty.

In a city where the dead are left lying on the streets, images of makeshift graves adorn the front page of newspapers where victims of the hurricane died not because of Katrina itself, but because they were poor.

A makeshift grave has been established in the Garden District of New Orleans for a woman who died in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Her body had been laying at the corner of Jackson Avenue and Magazine Street since at least last Wednesday.

As days passed, people covered the corpse with blankets or plastic.

A short wall of bricks had been built around the body, holding down a plastic tarpaulin. On it, someone had spray-painted a cross and the words, "Here lies Vera. God help us."

In Latin, Vera means "Truth". And the truth of this disaster is one that has angered and shamed most Americans.

Eye-witness Accounts

Britons returning from New Orleans have also described the horrifying conditions there.

Many were among the thousands who took refuge in the Superdome stadium from the floods that engulfed the city following Hurricane Katrina.

After looters had broken into New Orleans' Ramada Hotel, bus driver Ged Scott, 36, of Liverpool - stranded with his wife Sandra, 37, and their seven-year-old son, Ronan - had waded waist-deep through the filthy water to barricade the hotel's doors, he told BBC News.

"It was like wading through an open sewer.

"It reeked to high heaven and made you want to vomit.

"Outside I could see bodies floating in the water."

Mr Scott told BBC News he had ripped wires attached to speakers from the walls of the flooded hotel bar and tied tables and chairs together as makeshift barricades.

Hotel guests had already managed to chase one group of looters from the building, he added.

They had then taken turns patrolling the hotel's corridors with a torch, Mr Scott told BBC News.

Jamie Trout, 22, of Sunderland, told BBC News the five "horrific" days he and his two female friends had spent in the Superdome, before being freed by the US National Guard, had been "like something out of Lord of the Flies".

"It was very dangerous - rioting, looting of vending machines, racial abuse, absolutely terrible sanitary conditions."

They had been "intimidated by large groups of men" and, Mr Trout added, he had feared he would be killed.

The group had heard a child had been raped and found in the toilets with a broken neck, Mr Trout told BBC News.

A newspaper in Britain today recounts a British victim's report on how he saved his daughter from rape.

Another Briton, former Royal Marine Darryl Hill - originally from Amersham, Buckinghamshire - runs a hotel in New Orleans.

"This far outweighs anything I saw when I was with the British forces in various hostile areas," he told BBC Radio 4.

"The lack of support we've had, the lack of supplies flown in ... now they are starting to arrive, but it has taken over a week. I think there should have been a much quicker response from the hierarchy."

Mr Hill said some of what he had seen was "so raw and heart-touching it is hard to describe and hard to live with".

"I saw a young lady, she had just given birth and she had to carry her new-born over her head.

"The water was up to her breasts and she was just walking through the water, crying for help."

Will Nelson, 21, who spent five days in the stadium where up to 30,000 people took shelter from rising flood-water, described the situation as "chaos".

He said the atmosphere was "desperate" and "everyone was running out of food".

Mr Nelson told BBC News there were rumours of rapes and stabbings amidst the thousands packed into the stadium, as well as suicides.

The Loughborough University graduate, who had been travelling in the US after working in Camp America, said: "There were mothers with their children lying in corridors in filth and the toilets and water stopped working.

"The smell was disgusting and there were old people just sitting down in the road as well as the sick."

Peter Henry, 20, who had also been in New Orleans after working in Camp America, also described appalling conditions.

"By Tuesday night you heard of some suicides, people had jumped from balconies, or people being pushed, there were all sorts of rumours flying around. I honestly didn't think I was going to wake up on Wednesday morning."

Rioting and looting had broken out when food supplies had run out, Mr Henry added.

"I saw between 50 and 100 people fighting over a bottle of Coca Cola.

Images courtesy of BBC News and Associated Press

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