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Enduring the wait to be rescued as tales emerge of city’s darkest hours

September 3, 2005

By Guy Dinmore in New Orleans

Published: September 3 2005

For Janet Chapman and her family of four it began as a jaunt to New Orleans to support their football team from Baltimore. A week later they are sheltering with several thousand other refugees ankle deep in mud and excrement under a Route 10 overpass desperately wondering when they will ever get home.

Helicopters yesterday were still plucking families from roof tops of the submerged centre of the city, gathering them at a collection point on the western outskirts where, occasionally, buses from neighbouring states pulled up to take the lucky ones away.

At this one location, a degree of order was finally being established, with food, water and plastic tents delivered and armed police keeping guard.

But terrified refugees emerging from the centre of the city told of scenes of chaos, with looting, shooting and bodies afloat in flooded streets as National Guard units fought to keep control. Angry, bitter and frustrated, they asked how a country like America could descend into such hell. “We were pushing the dead people to one side wrapped up in sheets,” said Ms Chapman, describing the squalor in the convention centre she had just left.

The hotel organising her tour group was said to have paid $25,000 for a convoy of buses to take them away but they were commandeered by security forces just as they arrived and taken to another location.

National Guard units were flying in from across the US. Reminiscent of the French soldiers at the onset of world war one when they took taxis to the front, some guardsmen had to rent cars to get to the disaster scene from the nearest airports.

“The cavalry is coming,” said one soldier as he lined up at the Avis counter at Jackson’s airport some 200 miles from the coast. Even in central Mississippi hundreds of vehicles were lining up for petrol.

Asked if she was relieved that President George W. Bush had flown into New Orleans that afternoon, Mamie Hunt, a diabetic whose house lies under water in the ninth ward, replied: “Only if he gets us out of here.”

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