At 9 a.m. last Saturday, we gathered at Finn McCool's Irish bar on Banks Street in an area of New Orleans called Mid City. It is owned by a Lurgan couple and a crowd containing Irishmen from both sides of the border. Englishmen, Scotsmen and a smattering of Americans met for our weekly ritual of watching the Saturday afternoon English Premiership game, this one between Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspurs.
Andy, an engineer from Grimsby, didn't arrive until half-time because he had been helping to evacuate his girlfriend's horse. He said, "Six hundred bucks! Can you believe it?" I asked him if he thought we were going to get battered, suddenly concerned the Sunday morning friendly our newly-formed pub football team had arranged was in danger of being postponed.
"Don't worry. If the other team cry off then we'll have a training session," said Paul, a banker from London.
"It won't hit us. We'll turn up okay" said Benji, a former journalist forced to flee his native South Africa because of his opposition to apartheid. "My wife is out of town and I'm staying no matter what. We're a whole team of transplants. Where can we drive to — Ireland?" he laughed. After the match I patted him on the shoulder and said I'd see them all tomorrow.
Out of our squad of 22 players I know for sure just seven are definitely alive.
On the Saturday night, we were determined to sit it out and barely looked at the TV news and weather. Hurricane watches, warnings and alerts are common in Louisiana in the summer. In fact, my father, step-mother and brother and sister were visiting in July when tropical storm Cindy tore through the city and the falling trees and downed power lines didn't even wake them.
Last year, we had left when Hurricane Ivan hit and spent 12 hours gridlocked on a motorway to travel 107 miles. The storm missed completely and there was so little rain we had to water the plants when we got back. I swore I'd never leave again and besides, the storms always take a slight turn to the East just before they reach the Big Easy.
The phone started ringing at 6:30 a.m. on Sunday.
My friend, Steve, a 24-year-old Dubliner in the city on a four-month student work visa, had been wakened by his landlord urging him to leave. My wife's parents in North Carolina screamed at her to get out. My old school mate Richard from Portadown who runs the Ulster Carpets operation in Atlanta called to say things looked bad and we should head for his house. We switched on CNN and the hurricane had strengthened from a Category Three to a Category Five. And instead of curving away from the city, it was headed straight for us.
I drove to pick up Steve along St. Charles Avenue, the most prestigious address in the city. Normally the wide elegant boulevard is bustling with joggers dodging rickety streetcars which trundle between majestic mansions in the shade of huge oak trees. But the city was a ghost town with an eerie, portentous atmosphere like the opening scene in 28 Days Later. Steve’s employer had told him to stop into the cafe where he worked and empty everything he could from it, since he didn't expect it to be standing when he returned.
We rushed back to our house and I threw together a sports bag. We thought we would be away for two days... three at the most. I tried to phone my parents to tell them we were evacuating but everyone was out. I packed one tee-shirt, one pair of shorts, one pair of socks and one pair of boxers. I didn't bring a razor, my wedding ring I keep by the bed or a copy of the novel I have spent the last year writing.
As we left, my 74-year-old next-door neighbor was helping the elderly couple across the street — also in their 70s — board up their house. We stopped and offered to help but they said they were almost finished. They were all staying. We parked our car on the footpath and piled into an SUV driven by our lodger.
As the wind picked up we took secondary roads as far east as we could until our map ran out and we bled into the Interstate. We crawled painstakingly slowly and after three hours hadn't even left the city outskirts. When a bridge went out just short of the Mississippi state line, police turned the stream of traffic around and we took stock. Atlanta is a seven-hour drive away without any traffic — at this rate it would be a 20-hour journey.
Instead we drove north into Mississippi, still in Katrina's path but knowing it was not due to hit until Monday. Then we had a bit of luck — a relative of a friend of a friend said we could bed down in her house for the night. We eventually arrived in Pennsylvania, Miss., exhausted and hungry but safe.
The next morning, the wind had increased and the rain unrelenting. We had four hours before Katrina hit us and we headed west, back towards northern Louisiana in an attempt to outrun her. Even here, a hundred miles from the eye, the car was buffeted about as if we were in a washing machine.
We tuned to the emergency radio frequency which urged everyone to get off the roads and issued alerts about the tornados which were popping up and spinning off from the storm. The interstate, normally as choked as Great Victoria Street at 5 p.m. on Friday, was empty. As our lodger struggled to remain in control, the only vehicles passing us were police cars or 18-wheeler trucks. The sky was a blanket of black. It was the most frightening car journey of my life.
We pulled off the highway at Vicksburg on the Louisiana/Mississippi border. Driving conditions were atrociously dangerous, but we wanted to keep heading away from Katrina. We pushed on, and by 90 miles further west at Monroe it was 6 p.m., the wind and rain had eased, and we stopped at a bar to watch TV.
That's when we saw the first pictures of New Orleans.
In horror, we watched water drowning the city. Never, ever, ever in our worst nightmares did we think the levee protecting the Big Easy from Lake Pontchartrain would fail so spectacularly. We were prepared for smashed windows and missing roof tiles, but not for our home becoming part of a modern-day Atlantis.
We shuffled out of the bar, looked at a map and spent an hour in the car park trying to decide where to go and what to do. Friends checked hotel availability but couldn't find a single room in the whole state. We asked at nearby motels anyway and were handed sheets showing the nearest options - Dallas, a five-hour drive or Houston, an eight-hour drive. As night fell, we headed for Texas. Then our mobile phones with New Orleans area-code numbers failed.
At midnight, we found a hotel in a Dallas suburb and the check-in clerk discounted our room rate when he saw my New Orleans driving license. We were dirty, exhausted and emotionally drained after living for two days in the car. But even at this stage, we were ignorant of the true scale of the tragedy.
The next morning, the lobby was full of New Orleans refugees, all of them hungry for news. When were they letting us back in? How long did it take for you to get here? Do you know which areas are under water?
We went back to the room and watched the TV and it was obvious we were not going home any time soon. The city was submerged, more holes were appearing in the levees, and the water was reclaiming the world's most famous low-lying city. Estimates of when we could return ranged from 30 days to four months.
Gordon, an old school friend from Castlereagh but now a California-based pilot with American Airlines, came to our rescue. He immediately arranged a ticket from Dallas to San Diego and showed true Ulster hospitality by insisting we stay with him indefinitely. We thought the worst was over but the news from Louisiana just kept spiraling downwards.
First, 300 feet of the 17th Street Canal Levee crumbled into the water. Around 80% of the city was under water, and Mayor Nagin said if your house was not under water before then, it was now. Instead of getting better, things got worse. He gave the order to officially abandon the city.
There were downed trees, then power lines lying in the water electrocuting people. Then there was raw sewage in the water. Then snakes. Then alligators. Then standing water breeding mosquitos and all kinds of disease. Then armed gangs looting and raping, reporters watching inhabitants die and fires breaking out at toxic chemical plants throughout the city. It breaks my heart to watch the news, but I can't tear myself away from it.
It is so over-whelming, so gut-wrenchingly awful, so simply unbelievable. Even the worst violence of The Troubles, like the bombs in Enniskillen and the Shankill, didn't feel like this. The scale of the suffering, the self-destruction, the horrendous images. I grew up in the TV age, hardened by everything from the famine in Ethiopia to Sept. 11, but until you directly experience this kind of tragedy on such a massive scale you can never appreciate the full effects.
My friend's brother, Mark, is a city police officer and he finally managed to make contact with him today. He is a veteran cop who is fighting to cope with what he dealt with this week and intends to resign as soon as the city is stabilized. He described the streets as being like Somalia, far worse than the news pictures show, far worse than you can imagine.
A colleague of my wife needed to return to her home on the city's West Bank to secure it and get clothes for her daughters. As she drove, her husband leveled a shotgun out the passenger window as a deterrent to the gangs of looters roaming the streets. Truly apocalyptic, and scary how quickly society has broken down in the place regarded as America's playground and renowned for its easy-going atmosphere.
We were only supposed to stay a year in New Orleans while I wrote a light-hearted novel about a group of Ulstermen visiting the city for a stag trip, but my wife and I fell in love with the city and the people. It was vibrant, intoxicating and raucous, totally unique and so different from the bland strip-mall suburbia which blights much of America.
But away from Bourbon Street and the allure of the French Quarter it is also a desperately deprived city with two-fifths of Orleans Parish living in poverty. Away from Mickey Mouse in Florida or the Irish bars in Manhattan, Northern Irish tourists would be shocked to discover a swathe of disadvantaged city dwellers making up an underclass propping up the American Dream. The vast majority of them are black.
The city of New Orleans is broke. Schools started back two weeks ago, and pupils were reminded to bring in their own toilet paper and soap because the local government could not afford to provide them. When you see the harrowing images of haunted refugees in the water clutching a plastic bag you can be sure that is all the possessions they own. And this in the most developed and most powerful country in the world. The dead, injured and traumatized people you see on your TV did not decide to stay and ride out the hurricane. They are desperately poor, and stayed because they had no choice.
Everything we own is in our house which may be flooded, looted, or burnt to the ground. We just don't know, and it may be weeks or months before we find out.
But now I understand exactly what "survivor's guilt" is, because we are so thankful to have survived and it aches inside when you see people fighting for their lives on streets you drove down every day. We are lucky to have survived, and that's all that matters.