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Gary Younge
Only helicopters disturb the chilling calm

"They could see us and we could see them but they kept going for other people who I reckon were more desperate," Ms Smith said.

So she and Mr Bell sat over several feet of putrid foamy water and hoped for the best.

"The local convenience store had been looted so we could go in there and get quite a lot of canned goods and water. We knew we would live for a certain amount of time. But we also knew that we would run out eventually if nobody came."

Finally, six days after Hurricane Katrina turned their world upside down, a boat carrying the national guard arrived to rescue them and their next door neighbours, Carl Boot and Arlise Pickham.

"We had a radio so we had an idea of what was going on. We were just hoping someone would come and find us. We had maybe a day's more food left and then we were going to have to figure something else out."

Yesterday they were sitting outside the New Orleans convention centre. By the end of last week the venue had become a flashpoint for rage and discontent as thousands of angry people, desperate for help, gathered in hope of being evacuated. As a reminder of their frustration a handwritten sign still sits outside, stating "Bush come over here in hell. This is the shelter in hell."

Yesterday afternoon there were fewer than 100 people outside the centre, as buses and planes ferried refugees out of the city.

Meanwhile, a steady trickle of residents who had been hunkered down for almost a week started to emerge, looking for a way out of the devastated city. On Saturday the Federal Emergency Management Agency rescued 580 people from flooded homes.

The buzz of helicopters over the deserted urban wasteland lent the city a chilling calm. Stray dogs yapped at the feet of national guardsmen and a man played his guitar to an audience of one on Canal Street.

But while the streets were mainly empty, the city is anything but. More survivors are expected to surface as word spreads that the shelters have been cleared, the looting halted and the city is under control as the national guard step up their search and rescue operation.

But the anger remains. "People had to go out to the streets to loot just so we could have food to eat," said Melamio Farin, outside the convention centre. "Why has it all been done so badly? It's all political. The rich get richer and the poor get poorer."

Over at the Superdome, Naem Hassan and his wife sat with their trolley full of their belongings - two elderly people surrounded by several guardsmen. They had been waiting for four hours. Even though the roof had been blown off their house and the city had imploded into mayhem, for the whole of last week they had followed a routine. Each morning they would come out and make their way to the shelters.

"We kept coming to the places they said we should come to every morning but we could never get out," said Mr Hassan.

Every night they would sleep in their roofless house in fear of looters. On Saturday they ran out of food. And yesterday, when they arrived at the Superdome they were the only ones there.

The Hassans want to head for Atlanta where their children live. But few if any evacuees have any idea where they will end up.

"Where am I going?" Mr Farin said. "I'm going wherever ... I've got relatives in San Diego but who knows."

Mr Bell added: "I don't know where they'll take us. But it's got to be better than here so I don't care."

But others vowed to return. "We hope to come back when it's straightened out," said Roy Wilson as he wandered down Canal Street. "My family live in Mississippi so I guess we'll go there for now."

Back at the Superdome Mr Hassan chatted playfully with the national guardsman. "Don't pat it," he said to the soldier as he idly tapped his pump action shotgun. "It ain't going nowhere."

But the Hassans are. Shortly afterwards a guardsman told them to get ready.

"Take what you can carry," he said, pointing to the trolley with all their worldly possessions. "Everything else just leave."

© Gary Younge. All Rights reserved, site built with tlc
Stranger in a Strange Land – Encounters in the Disunited States
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'It often takes an outsider to look inside. This is especially true of the United States.'
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