Published: 31 August 2009
Four years ago this month the levees broke and New Orleans flooded. Hurricane Katrina struck with a glancing blow and then pushed the waters of Lake Pontchartrain and the Mississippi through the city's inadequate defences. It was an awesome display of nature's ultimate sanction over mankind – and a chilling sign of what might be to come, as the climate is driven to extremes by global warming.
Katrina was the biggest natural disaster in US history. It was also a display of human failure on a previously unimaginable scale. In the richest, most powerful nation on earth, the people of a major city were left to languish and die in waterlogged squalor, while politicians bickered and dithered. For tens of thousands of Americans stranded by the flood, it was five whole days before meaningful help arrived.
The authorities claimed New Orleans was cut off by the waters, and yet journalists managed to get in with little trouble. On 31 August 2005, two days after Katrina made landfall, I hitched a lift with a couple of local reporters who seemed to know what they were doing. We drove around the back roads of Louisiana, braving nothing more than ankle-deep water and a police roadblock, and found ourselves crossing the Mississippi into the city on the deserted Pontchartrain Expressway, the main route into New Orleans from the south.
In the city, we found groups of bewildered people wading through foetid black waters, looking for food, shelter and help. The only signs of government presence were a couple of lorries belonging to the National Guard, who drove past kicking up water at flood victims who had been hoping for a lift, or at least some information about what to do and where to go. Thousands of survivors, mostly poor and mostly black, ended up huddling in the battered Superdome sports arena and the city convention centre, expecting that the government would soon come to their aid.
How wrong they were. I went to the convention centre on 2 September, a Friday. The hurricane had hit on Monday. Since then the only help the 20,000 people there had received was some pallets of military rations and bottled water, dropped from the expressway high above them.