NThe beginning of the week brought a hurricane's fury. Then came the flood. After that, the debacle.
Storms come and storms go, but Hurricane Katrina somehow stayed. Its damnable distinction was its beguiling savagery. New Orleans did not have one of those comprehensible morning-after moments where the winds fade, the tides ebb and the dimensions of the destruction become rapidly clear. Instead, the shape of Katrina's wind and the contours of the city kept the floodwaters climbing.
And because so much black water now hides vast quarters of the city, there is mystery and untold misery yet to come.
In a world turned topsy-turvy, Ira Fontenette knows his front walk is 11 feet under because he checked the depth finder on his fishing boat as he pulled away. Outside the Superdome, where thousands of tattered and exhausted people stood in line for buses that never seemed to come, a Harrah's Casino billboard taunted, as if from a different galaxy, "Someone Will Win $1 Million."
At a public housing project, John Davis waded out when the flood waters were chest deep and rising, leaving behind everything but the kids. "The less we have," he said, "the quicker we can get there."
And in Louis Armstrong International Airport suddenly overrun, a man said into a radio, "Larry's handling the body issue. They're setting up the morgue at D-1."
The silence is always the strangest thing when a hurricane goes away. Then, the day after the storm, the chain saws usually kick in, with their jacked-up beehive buzz, as crews cut away fallen trees. Yet in much of urban New Orleans on Tuesday, the quiet stretched on.
Downtown, the first refugees gathered in search of safety. Unsure where to go or what was expected of them, it was too soon for solace.
On Wednesday, 36 hours after Katrina moved north, the greater calamity began to become clear. The levee encasing the low-lying city had broken. Water from Lake Pontchartrain flowed into the city, filling it like a bathtub. The battered Superdome, which had sheltered 25,000 people during the storm, became a risk to health and sanity.
The man-made elements of the brewing tragedy also started to show. Perhaps the most notable and persistent, as ad hoc rescue and relief operations got underway, was the absence of authority. There were few rules, minimal supplies and little evident direction from the top. Electrical power was out in New Orleans and far beyond easy repair. Water and gas were soon shut off.
But no cavalry was waiting close to the city. City and state leaders were badly overmatched. No one stepped in to take charge.
People trudged through the city in countless thousands, some pushing shopping carts, some pulling suitcases, but most carrying only a few precious items in a plastic sack. One woman tied a rope to a gray plastic storage container, fashioning a sled that held her sleeping baby.
Beneath a Mississippi River bridge, a teenage girl sprawled in a shopping cart, a white towel wrapped around her ankle. She had been shot two weeks earlier. Doctors got the bullet out, but she was in no shape to walk.
On every stretch of street, it seemed, someone needed medicine, oxygen, a wheelchair, a ride. Everyone needed a ride.
"You sleep in the day and try to stay up at night because it's not as hot," said John Davis. There was another good reason to be awake at night: To watch for marauders.
In Metairie, a wind-torn district just west of New Orleans, Jefferson Parish Fire Department Capt. Bruce Saltalamachia drove a city bus on a scavenging mission, requisitioning food from shuttered restaurants owned by friends. "People are trying to flag us down. They want something," Saltalamachia said. "They should have left."
A few streets away, Shawn Fitzgerald tried to comfort her two toddlers as they wailed in the blistering morning sun. She knew about the evacuation order before Katrina hit. Where would she go? How would she get there?
"There was no way. I just spent all my money on Friday sending in my condo fee and paying my electrical, of all things," Fitzgerald said, nodding toward power lines tangled like spaghetti. "We heard on the radio, 'Y'all should've left.' We would have if we could."
Garrick Thomas took refuge in the Superdome, only to surrender on Tuesday afternoon to the stifling heat, the stench and the stagnation. As he sloshed through knee-deep water, he felt as though he was escaping a second storm. Everyone inside was on edge, he said, not least the officers with guns.
"No organization. No food. No nothing. They ain't telling us anything. If you try to get a bottle of water, they hold their M-16s up to you," Thomas said. "They told us not to leave out of there. We snuck out."
Conditions would get worse in most parts of town. The city's lovely and quirky French Quarter, along with the upscale neighborhoods just west of downtown, survived mostly. Many stragglers there had resources, but decided, after riding out the storm, to try to ride out the stormy aftermath.
The hardships accumulated fastest and the tears flowed strongest downtown and along the expressways.
"People in the water. People on the streets. People everywhere. There's no place to turn. No leadership," said Dorothy Riley on Thursday morning, waiting in vain for a bus. Nearby, Warner Diaz asked, "Where is the Red Cross? People riding public transportation every day, how they supposed to get out?"
Yet it would be another 24 hours before President Bush declared the disaster response "unacceptable."
On the ground, it was clear that only the federal government -- essentially the military -- had the ability to evacuate the tens of thousands of New Orleans residents increasingly desperate to leave. More than a few of those left behind, overwhelmingly black people, questioned whether race was a factor in the sluggish response.
"What do you see? Black," said Jesse Spurlock as he moved among crowds of refugees camped on the Pontchartrain Expressway. "All these black people. Man, nothing but us."
Lionel Hillard, chairman of the New Orleans Regional AIDS Planning Council, said the authorities are "so busy guarding all those fancy restaurants in the French Quarter and these fancy high rises, they're forgetting about the people." He credited National Guard troops with doing a "wonderful job," maintaining that "it's not the National Guard's fault. They're governed by the politicians."
By Friday, when Bush toured by helicopter, the dimensions of the twin disasters -- the storm and the relief effort -- could not have been more achingly evident.
There were few federal troops in the city, although an air bridge connecting the stranded thousands in New Orleans with the airport on the outskirts was in blessedly full swing. As swarms of choppers dropped onto the tarmac, the scene resembled a wartime evacuation. The wounded, the weak and the weary spilled out, hunched against the rotor wash or carried on litters to a MASH unit inside the terminal.
The airport was bursting at the seams. At one point, a well-armed security guard said, "People on the refugee side have not been screened for weapons, so we don't know what's in the building. Welcome to my nightmare."
Overstressed volunteer doctors and nurses, swamped without warning with patients of every description, rushed people through triage.
Thousands of other evacuees flooded the terminal. In the middle of the crush, a woman sat in a wheelchair calmly feeding her parakeet. All she wanted was to go home.
Tanisha Blevin, 5, holds the hand of Nita LaGarde, 105, as they are evacuated from the convention center. Hillary Snowton tries to block the odor at the convention center.