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Katrina: When New Orleans went from developed world to Third World

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[Editor's note: In our Behind the Scenes series, CNN correspondents share their experiences covering news. Jeff Koinange, CNN's Africa correspondent, covered Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans.]

(CNN) -- I've traveled to close to half-a-dozen refugee and displaced people's camps across Africa -- from Sierra Leone to Uganda, Kenya to Congo -- in the year since Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans.

And each time, I get this feeling of deja vu -- of the faces, the destruction, the pain and anguish I witnessed during the month I spent in New Orleans this time last year.

The city by the delta, so vividly described by Mark Twain, leaves its mark on a person. ("An American has not seen the United States until he has seen Mardis Gras in New Orleans," he wrote in 1859.) It's a city that practically every singer worth his salt has sung about -- from Aaron Neville ("Louisiana") to Charlie Pride ("Roll On Mississippi"). Indeed, New Orleans has been described by many writers, with uncanny prescience as it turned out, as the First World and the Third World all rolled into one.

I arrived in New Orleans just hours after Katrina hit. As fate would have it, I was on holiday in the United States and was soon part of a CNN convoy heading to Louisiana.

It is still hard to describe the magnitude of what we faced : The physical devastation, homes washed away, boats sitting in the middle of streets, small airplanes overturned and literally "wheels up." More boats were on highways, tanker trailers floated like ships at sea and on and on. Billions of dollars in personal possessions destroyed in one fell swoop.

And then there were the thousands of displaced residents, many still trapped in their houses, shelters, the overwhelming sense of lawlessness, rising anger and desperation.

All this was accompanied by the unearthly and constant buzz of helicopters, hovering like angry flies attracted by the piles and piles of rotting rubbish, dead bodies and the black floodwater that surrounded us.

For journalists, many of us used to covering tragedy around the world, it was incredibly difficult to unravel fact from fiction in what had just hours before been a thriving and vibrant American city.

And for many journalists used to operating with all communications at their fingertips, it was a stark return to basics where no infrastructure could be relied upon: phone lines down, lights that didn't work. Perhaps my experience in Africa equipped me better in this regard than others.

'Sleeping in trash'

For me, as an African more used to covering events on that wonderful yet challenged continent, there was an added poignancy as the developed and developing world seemed to merge into one terrible physical and human catastrophe.

There were compelling echoes for me of the devastation wrought on its people in the Mozambique typhoon of 2000 -- and yet, this time the disaster was unfolding in the world's most powerful nation.

On day three the true horror of what was happening at the Convention Center and Superdome started to become apparent both inside and in the streets outside.

As we drove down Convention Center Boulevard, we stumbled into what can only be described as "Hell on Earth." The old, the young, the sick (many dialysis patients still hooked-up to their IVs), scattered on both sides of the boulevard under the humid 90-degree heat, sleeping where they could on anything they could find.

We were met with a wall of faces: angry, distraught, helpless and homeless people -- all resigned to a life of suffering with a lot of bitterness.

People looked to us for help because there seemed none in sight. People demanded we tell the world what was happening to them with the hopes that someone somewhere would feel their plight and lend a helping hand. People couldn't understand why their government wasn't there for them at their time of greatest need.

I'll never forget Kevin Goodman sitting on the pavement with his wife and five children. He blamed the authorities, saying: "They got us sleeping in trash, lying next to dead bodies, the police treating us like animals."

And not far from him there was 24-year old mother of four, Dawn Mosely, who told me in no uncertain words that she'd had enough of the city she'd grown up in. "I don't feel safe in New Orleans no more," she said, adding, "Wherever they put me at, that's where I'm going to start my life."

They came in all different shades: black, white, mixed race, you name it, it was a rainbow nation of the destitute.

Among them, Mary Sossinski, a resident of Madison, Wisconsin, who'd been visiting friends when Katrina struck. She found herself mixed in with the locals and unable to leave.

"This is ridiculous for the richest country in the world to treat its citizens like this," she said fighting back tears.

In among the floodwaters, however, New Orleans birthed its own heroes. The stories of heroism include the young and old alike, heroism that reached across the ethnic, cultural and financial divide.

Strangers saving strangers, neighbors pulling neighbors out of fast-flooding houses, policemen jumping off their patrol boats and SUVs, the Coast Guard rescuing people off of roofs and cars, buildings and cellars.

Often swimming in dirty black water to rescue the old and the sick, people were forced to climb skyscrapers in the crippling heat and carry the helpless down numerous flights of steps.

Many of them will never be known because they preferred it that way. They did what they had to do because it was the right thing to do at the time.

Twelve months later, New Orleans is again the focus of world attention. Journalists -- CNN's finest among them -- taking stock to assess its recovery from the day the world's most developed nation experienced a fate more akin to that suffered virtually every day in the developing world.

And more personally perhaps, it will be a moment for us all, journalists, the people of New Orleans and observers alike, to mark the courage shown by the city's citizens, and to reflect that acts of nature are no respecter of economics or politics.


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CNN's Africa correspondent Jeff Koinange reporting from New Orleans last year.

SPECIAL REPORT

• Rebuilding: Vital signs
• Gallery: Landmarks over time
• Storm & Flood: Making history
• I-Report: Share your photos
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