Moments of destruction, despair and hope in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina

September 04, 2005|By John Woestendiek

It was a city known for revelry, but now it wallows -- thigh-deep, in places -- in a kind of third-world misery rarely seen in America.

It was a city of half a million people -- four-fifths of whom got out while doing so was still possible, leaving 100,000 others, including the poorest and most vulnerable, behind to fend for themselves in the floodwaters.

It was a city.

Hurricane Katrina slammed more ferociously into Mississippi, carving a path of destruction across the Gulf Coast that will devastate its economy for years to come, uprooting oil rigs, shutting down refineries and ripping casinos from their moorings.

But it was New Orleans, a city built below sea level, that was nearly wiped off the map, drenched with floodwaters -- as many had warned it might be -- after its elaborate system of levees and pumps, designed to outwit nature, proved unable to bear up.

Katrina may not be the deadliest natural disaster in the United States. A 1900 hurricane in Galveston, Texas killed, more than 6,000 people. But it has already become the costliest.

As for now, the estimated toll is huge, but vague -- maybe more than a thousand dead in Louisiana, hundreds more in Mississippi.

It was the third almost incomprehensible catastrophe of the otherwise young century to capture the world's attention, and as with 9/11 terrorist attacks, as with the tsunami in South Asia, it brought out the best in people.

And the worst.

Even as the floodwaters receded, anarchy was rising. Despite President Bush's appearance there Friday, and promises that help was on the way, the tens of thousands still stranded in New Orleans faced conditions described as hellish, lawless and desperate, and a future among the ranks of what could turn out to be the largest concentration of American refugees since the Dust Bowl.

Rebuilding New Orleans -- and some have questioned the wisdom of that -- will take a while. Rebuilding lives starts now.

Captured in essays by Sun reporters and photographers, and in images by Sun photographers and others, here is a chronicle of the last, extra-ordinary week along the Gulf Coast.

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