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Gary Younge
The long search for the missing

As one of the few family members, however distant, in the area, I too have started trying to help. But with the national guard preventing people going into the city, my proximity means little. Finding an actual person to talk to takes time and an extraordinary amount of patience. On the Federal Emergency Management Agency (Fema) website there is a list of numbers to call for the Louisiana state office of Emergency Preparedness and the Louisiana state police. So I hit the phones repeatedly. All are jammed virtually all day.

The Red Cross says it "is only accepting phone calls to search for missing persons in these emergency circumstances: insulin-dependent diabetics, oxygen dependent, on dialysis, blind, recent heart attack or stroke victims, mobility challenged, broken leg, foot or ankle, or paralysed". Although Mrs Holloway has high blood pressure and her sister has twice had surgery for cancer, neither is quite sick enough.

Fema also provides links to bulletin boards where the public can post names and addresses, as well as a CNN update with a list for posting safe family members. These boards occasionally relay good news. "Uncle Pete and Aunt Molly are safe and in Pasadena but missing Wayne, Susan and Michael," writes one.

But these tales are rare. The anxiety may feel intensely personal, but we are among thousands looking for lost loved ones. Each time you click on, another dozen or so appear in a similar state of desperation.

These are scenes reminiscent of the immediate aftermath of September 11. Those who have made it into New Orleans wander the streets pleading for help and confirmation of a last sighting. For all the news surrounding this event, concrete information, it seems, is difficult to come by.

It took Mrs Holloway's daughter, who is also named Deborah and who lives in California, two days to get through to anybody.

"You get this false sense of security when you finally get a phone to ring because often you get through to a recorded message saying 'I'm sorry, the system is overloaded, please try later'."

When she has finally achieved it the response has been polite and helpful. Fema said it would pass the information on to people in the field; the state police took her mother and aunt's height, weight and hair colour; one of the senators she emailed replied saying they were doing all they could.

"At this stage if anyone can refer me to anybody else I'm happy," she said. "These two little old ladies are not going to leave the house on their own. Right now I think they are safer in the house given all the hell that has broken loose in the city."

Ms Holloway last spoke to her mother on Sunday and has not been able to get through on a landline or a mobile phone since. Given that Mrs Fisher spoke to someone on Tuesday it appears they weathered the storm but are in danger because of the flooding.

"Their house is 100 years old. It's been their home from when they were children," said Ms Holloway.

"It has withstood every hurricane that has come through and they thought they would be OK. I wasn't happy with their decision but I knew that's how they wanted it to be."

She added: "I've never seen an attic in that house. And even if there was an attic they don't have a ladder. And even if they did have a ladder they could never get up it. And even if they could get up it they don't have an axe to break through to the roof. And even if they did they wouldn't be strong enough to use it."

So we wait. Hitting the redial button, surfing the web for a new place to post their names. Ms Holloway keeps watching the news even though, she said, it was making her crazy.

"I see a news man standing in Canal Street and he's calling into the office and I think 'My mother lives just around the corner. Why don't you go and get her'."

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