A Journey in the South

Andrew O’Hagan

The sky over North Carolina was showing red the night Sam and Terry decided to leave for the South. The red clouds travelled to Smithfield from the western hills, the high Appalachians and the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Great Smokies. Sam Parham is 27 years old and weighs 260 pounds. For an hour or so, right into the dark, he pulled on the starting string of an electric generator he’d borrowed from his father, until the top of his T-shirt was soaked with sweat. ‘Goddamn bitch,’ he said. ‘This muthafucker is brand new. I want the goddamn thing to work. We’re sure gonna need its ass when we get to New Orleans.’

Sam’s neighbour had chickens outside his trailer and frogs were hiding in the pine trees along the drive. An American flag hung limply on the porch as Sam inspected the back of his truck with a giant torch, the crickets going zeep-zeep-zeep and red ants crowding in the oil at his feet. ‘I just can’t watch those TV pictures of children stranded and not go down there,’ Sam said, while Yolande, his pregnant girlfriend, sat on the porch and opened a can of Mountain Dew and lit another cigarette.

Yolande was wearing her uniform from the Waffle House, where she works the nightshift. ‘You can’t expect me to agree,’ she said. ‘But I respect you for doing it, Sam. I just think it’s the government should be doing it.’

‘I’m just a blue-collar guy or whatever,’ said Sam. ‘And I’m gonna do what I can if the country needs me.’

Terry Harper is a co-worker of Yolande’s at the Waffle House. As we drove along Interstate 95 to pick him up, house-lights flared in the distance and Yolande started talking about God. ‘My daddy knows the Bible one hand to the other and when he starts speaking at you it’s like preachin,’ she said. North Carolina was the birthplace of Billy Graham and three US presidents, Andrew Johnson, James Polk and Andrew Jackson, and also, among the twinkling lights out there, you could find the uncelebrated birthplace of Thomas Wolfe, the North Carolinian who wrote Look Homeward, Angel. As the truck got nearer the Waffle House, someone on the radio made the point that North Carolina was itself no stranger to hurricanes – Hazel (1954), Hugo (1989), Fran (1996), Floyd (1999). It’s no stranger to racism either. The Neuse River, the Roanoke River and the Yadkin River, named, like so much in the state, by the native Indian population that was cleared to make way for the twinkling lights and Interstate 95, have been known to burst their banks and flood the plains. The radio was silent on the fact that America’s first ever sit-in occurred at Greensboro, North Carolina, to protest against segregation at a lunch counter.

‘They’re not cookin more than $200 a night,’ said Yolande, ‘and I can do that on coffee and Coca-Cola if I’m tired.’ She was planning to take over Terry’s shifts so that he could make the trip south. Terry was mild-mannered, imperturbable, sucking juice out of a Waffle House cup. He is a 50-year-old black man with a short moustache and a gap between his teeth. He was born in Pitt County but spent his happiest days in Atlanta. Terry sat at the counter of the Waffle House waiting for a decision. It turned out he needed more than Yolande to cover his shifts, so we went in search of another worker, Ashley, who has kids on her own and needs the money. She doesn’t have a telephone, but Sam found her house in the rundown Wilson area, next to a railway crossing. It was 75 degrees in the dark. Ashley came out from a house that flashed blue with television pictures and she jumped up and down on the porch at the prospect of having more shifts at the Waffle House. ‘It’s the lowest of the low works for the Waffle House,’ Sam said. ‘Would you look at her jumping up and down, the immaturity of her. She’s got kids. Look at where we’re at.’ He took a long look into the bleak houses at the edge of the projects. ‘My sister was murdered,’ he said. ‘She was killed by an injection of liquid crack-cocaine. They tried to say she had a drug problem but she had no drug problem. She was killed.’

Ashley’s two kids were cowering in their pyjamas in the back of the truck with the neon of the fast-food marquees shining in their eyes. They were delivered to a babysitter in Lenoir Drive, a place that seemed to be exclusively black, young women sitting on the stoop while boys played basketball on the street in cap-sleeve jerseys. Ashley says she gets $2.85 an hour. Driving back to the Waffle House, Ashley and Yolande were gossiping about other members of staff. ‘You know that TV show As the World Turns?’ Yolande said. ‘Well, there’s more soap in the goddamn restaurant. We call it “As the Waffle Burns”.’

Sam was using the internet as he drove at 70 mph. He kept the laptop balanced between the two front seats, and had a wireless connection, so he was able to look up weather and news reports as he drove, clicking on the keypad and sometimes using the shift key. When not on the internet, and not talking about the shape and meaning of his life, Sam was often on his mobile phone. He has, as he keeps saying, ‘unlimited’, which means that his payment plan allows him to call anywhere in America as often as he likes. He spent great portions of every day on the phone to Yolande, or to his former wife, or his children, often when he was driving, and the calls often ended in arguments. ‘You know about the hurricane, right?’ Sam said to his son Zak. ‘I’m going down there to help the people. It’s what we have to do. The people need our help.’

After speaking to his children, Sam would grow listless for a while, as if love and regret were together taking their toll. He stared into the windscreen as the night came on and his plans fell into alignment. ‘I seem to get myself into these situations where I just help people all the time,’ he said. Then he rang his grandmother and put her on speakerphone.

‘Don’t run into a brawl or anything, Sammy, ’cause a lot of those people are just crazy right now.’

By 12.10 a.m., the back of the truck heaped with chainsaw, power generator, giant toolbox and assorted jacks, Sam and Terry had left Smithfield and before long were heading down the Purple Heart Memorial Highway. Sam split his attention equally between the road and the laptop. His love of the internet explained my presence in the back of the truck: like tens of thousands of Americans in the days after the hurricane, Sam had advertised himself on the net as a willing volunteer and I found him and followed him. ‘Here,’ he said, chucking Terry a carton of painkillers. ‘Don’t say I ain’t good to you.’ Terry has a bad case of gout in his right leg and it makes him hobble. When not on the phone, Sam talked into thin air, addressing himself. ‘Why did the Good Lord bring Hurricane Katrina?’ he asked. ‘Man, it’s life, it’s evolution. Shit happens. But the thing that matters is what you do about it as a person. If some guy comes to rape my wife, why, this is America: I’m gonna put a cap in his ass. I’m gonna give him a hot one and let him leak.’ As if to confirm his point, Sam lifted a small blue medical bag that was hanging on the rear-view mirror. It contained a gun with the clip inserted and the safety catch on. He waved the gun over the steering wheel. ‘They’re gonna get this in the ass,’ he said.

Terry wanted to sleep a little until the painkillers took hold. And when he woke, somewhere in South Carolina, Sam was saying how much he admired George W. Bush. ‘I voted for Bush last time,’ he said. ‘I liked the way he handled 9/11. He’s a strong president. Hell, he’s my commander-in-chief.’ Terry gave him a long, weary look, and rubbed his eyes. Neither Sam nor Terry has ever possessed a passport and they speak of the world beyond America as if it were a hidden territory of oddness, weakness and unreality. Sam stopped the truck at a gas station.

‘I feel better,’ Terry said. ‘I’m gonna smoke me some Turkish Jades.’ And with that he hopped out of the truck and headed for the all-night window.

‘He’s poor as shit, man,’ said Sam. ‘No money at all. And he’s going down to Mississippi in this bitch to help with somethin that’s got nothing to do with him.’ The road south – the flashing grass, the beat of the signs – seemed to direct Sam into a landscape of clear memory. He was born in Palm Beach, Florida, and within six months had been adopted by his grandmother. His mother was an alcoholic and he was left on a windowledge in Pennsylvania in the dead of winter. That’s when his grandmother came and took him to live in Maine.

‘We got some of the same issues,’ said Terry. ‘My mother dropped me off in North Carolina when I was four years old and I never saw her again.’

‘We came to North Carolina in 1984,’ said Sam. ‘We moved into my uncle’s camper and then spent a while living in a tent. We got a house eventually. I remember my biological mother coming to the house in Greensboro and she tried to kidnap me. She took me out in the middle of the night when I was asleep. The cops came and I’d never seen so many blue lights.’

‘A white baby kidnapped,’ said Terry.

‘Yeh,’ said Sam. ‘If a black kid disappeared nobody cared back then, but if a white kid was taken there would be cops crawling outta the grass.’

At the gas station, water was leaking from a drainpipe and it ran down the wall to arrive on top of a newspaper vending machine. Terry paused beside it to light one of his menthol cigarettes. The paper was out of date, but, through the glass, there was a story about the desperate situation in New Orleans. It said the government was under fire for the slowness of the rescue operation. ‘It now looks like the South will be relying on volunteers. It may turn out to be one of the greatest volunteer operations this country has ever seen. President Bush said it made him proud to witness the response of everyday working Americans.’ A second story said the ordeal had opened ‘an old wound’ about race in America.

Not far from the Chattahoochee River, Sam parked the truck in a lay-by and reclined his seat for a few hours’ sleep. As he snored, Terry saw a Great Blue Heron fly over the truck and swoop down towards the Interstate. ‘Heading south in search of water,’ he said. ‘Just like us.’

Terry believes that racism has followed him all his life. He grew up only twenty minutes from the ocean in North Carolina and helped truck tobacco when he was ten years old. ‘That was my first job,’ he said. ‘My second job was in the graveyard, burying bodies at $50 a grave. I was 16 and still at Ayden-Grifton High School. That was how I paid for everything, sports, prom: digging graves.’ At school, Terry got deeply involved in civil rights actions. He speaks of a white state trooper who was cleared of murdering two young black men, the Murphy brothers. There was a dawn to dusk curfew at that time, but Terry and his friends would go out at night and set fire to cornfields. Terry says he tried to shoot the state trooper one night with a borrowed rifle. He waited all night in a ditch and when he fired he missed the policeman by three inches. Later, Terry and a group of his friends got some dynamite from a demolition company and tried to blow up their high school. Terry was detained by a teacher and so was not present when the bomb was set off. His friends were charged and found guilty. ‘Yep,’ said Terry. ‘Those boys went down. Two of them, the Raspberry twins, got 20 years apiece.’

In the early 1970s, Terry joined the Black Panthers. A number of things drew him into the movement: his childhood experience of racist murders, an instinct for self-defence, and the charismatic influence of the Panther members from Chicago who visited North Carolina to inspire younger black men to force a change in the fabric of America, and, Terry said as the truck sped forward into the Alabama sun, ‘to kill a few people’.

‘Cool,’ said Sam. Though he’d taken a week off from his work as a cable television engineer to help with the relief effort, Sam still had to deliver his work records and invoices from the previous week. He worried about it across several states and eventually pulled into a Days Inn near Birmingham, Alabama. Terry looked up. ‘This is where Bull O’Connor, the police chief, turned his damn German shepherds on those little black girls,’ he said. ‘Then he turned a fire hose on those poor fuckers who were marching.’

‘Cool,’ said Sam, parking the truck with one hand. As the woman at the Days Inn took her time to book us into the room, Sam disconnected the internet cable from the back of her computer. ‘Whore,’ said Sam.

‘Let’s just get inside and rest a while,’ said Terry.

The room was dirty and the sheets didn’t fit the bed. Terry decided to call reception to complain. ‘For $78 a person might expect hot water and fitted sheets,’ he said.

Meanwhile, Sam marched into the room and put his gun down on the table and held up a bunch of papers. ‘This represents 1500 fuckin dollars,’ he said. ‘And if I don’t get them faxed to fuckin North Carolina in ten minutes I don’t get paid next week. This shit’s fucked up. The bastard machine only takes three fucked-up papers at a time.’ Quietly, Terry removed the clip from the gun.

‘George Wallace, the governor, said over my dead body would any nigger go to school here.’

‘It was them blacks that started racism in the first place,’ Sam said. Sweat was dropping onto the pages he aimed to fax.

Terry wanted to stop in Atlanta on the way back to see his son, who was refusing to go to school. Terry hadn’t seen his son in several years and said he just needed ten minutes. ‘His black ass is on the 50 yard line,’ Terry said. ‘Not going to muthafuckin school. That’s unacceptable to me. I’ll kick his black ass when I get him.’

The TV was showing a movie about a police SWAT team, and Sam, his pages travelling slowly through his mobile fax machine, stuck out his tongue and made shooting noises at the screen. ‘You’re one dead fucker,’ Terry said to Colin Farrell, the actor on the screen. ‘You’re gone.’ As he watched the movie, Terry opened a tin of clam chowder and ate it cold with a stolen spoon, following it with a red drink called Tahitian Fruit Punch.

Terry woke up to find Sam lying on the next bed and the TV saying that New Orleans was depending on the kindness of strangers. ‘It’s a known fact,’ Terry said, ‘that the police and emergency services are, minimum, 15 minutes slower to attend calls in black areas, so it’s no surprise that they were slower to help the South when it was in trouble. If this had happened in a white area they would’ve been out there the same day plucking them white folks out the water.’

It had grown dark outside and we were thinking of setting off again. Sam was surfing the net for porn and talking to his ex-wife at the same time. ‘I’d hope that if I was stuck up on a roof that someone would come get me offa there,’ he said. ‘This is America. People do their best.’ His ex-wife was niggling him about family duties. ‘If something terrible happens to me, you’re gonna feel bad,’ he said. ‘Yes, ma’am. You surely are.’ After a minute of silence and finger-flicking, Sam’s tone changed and he seemed to lean further into the phone. ‘Do you know what tantric sex is?’ he asked. He was still looking at his laptop. ‘It’s mind-fucking!’

Terry was in the bathroom when Sam came rushing into the motel room with a giant grin on his face. ‘Terry! Hey. Hot blondes outside!’ Terry immediately came through and started whistling from the door. Sam laughed. ‘You ain’t gonna get them by whistling like they was dogs, dude.’ A while later, a handsome young couple, Cory and Aimee Exterstein, arrived at the Days Inn reception desk with their two children. Cory was wearing a baseball cap that said Louisiana State University. They looked exhausted, and the children were half-asleep. Their house had been destroyed by floodwater in New Orleans and they had managed to escape with the children and a few blankets. They told the woman at the desk that FEMA was saying that evacuees could stay at Days Inn motels and FEMA would pay the costs.

‘I don’t know nothin about that,’ the woman said.

The young man was getting frustrated and his wife began to cry. ‘We’re just looking for some help here,’ he said. ‘We don’t have anything and the boys are tired. We’ve been driving all day.’

The woman behind the desk suddenly grew hostile and self-pitying. ‘I don’t get paid enough to deal with this,’ she said. ‘This gentleman’ – she pointed to Terry, who was standing in the foyer – ‘is looking for more towels and I don’t have any kind of help here.’

Mr Exterstein used the motel phone to call FEMA but things were chaotic and the person he spoke to didn’t know how to help them. His wife put her elbows on the desk and sobbed behind her hands.

‘Listen, man. You can have our room,’ said Terry.

‘What?’ said the man.

‘Our room,’ said Terry. ‘We’ve only been resting for a coupla hours and we’re clearing out soon. Forget them: they’re so rude around here. Take our room.’

When they arrived at the room Sam was combing his hair so that it sat round his head like a bowl. Delighted to see them, he gave them bottles of water and money out of his pocket. ‘You guys are so kind,’ Aimee said. ‘It’s just unbelievable, all this. And you guys are so kind.’

‘That’s awesome, man,’ her husband said. ‘We only have $200 between us and we wish we could do something for you guys.’

‘All we want to do is help,’ Sam said.

It turned out the young couple had worked together at a bar called the Cajun Cabin in Bourbon Street – ‘the French Quarter’s only authentic Cajun bar and restaurant’ – a place with red-and-white-check tablecloths and live music every night. But it was now under six feet of water, as was the Extersteins’ house. ‘It’s completely destroyed,’ Aimee said. ‘I didn’t even have time to get my framed pictures or any of the personal stuff. It’s all just gone for ever now.’

‘And when we went back to see if anything was salvageable,’ Cory said, ‘the door had been kicked down and it was obvious the looters had been there. My Xbox was gone. Aimee’s jewellery. Everything.’

‘They locked everybody inside the Convention Center,’ Aimee said. ‘It was just crazy down there. It was as if gangs had taken over New Orleans.’ They put the children into one of the beds and then hugged each other in the middle of the room.

‘I had to go into the bathroom and do stuff when they hugged,’ Sam said later. ‘It just choked me up to see them upset and it made me feel great to know we’d done something.’

On the edge of Mississippi, Sam called his girlfriend to tell her what happened back at the motel in Birmingham. ‘We’re finally doing something,’ he said. Even in company, Sam always seemed a little lonely without his cellphone flipped out on his hand. Terry woke up and stared at the car in front. ‘O man!’ shouted Sam. ‘I see the whites in the nigger’s eyes! I sees the whites!’

‘You’re stoopid,’ said Terry. ‘Some things just ain’t worth gettin upset about.’

‘I see the whites, muthafucker!’

Snapped branches began to appear by the side of the freeway. Then the road-signs started to look ragged and the fields blasted. ‘Hurricane territory,’ Terry said.

The truck seemed to be moving faster as Sam began losing patience with his ex-wife. ‘Listen, young lady. You’re being rude! You’re cutting me off. Listen, you fat pig. You fat fuckin pig. I’m losing power here.’

She wouldn’t accept that Sam was on a mercy mission. She thought he was bragging about what he had done, and she would rather he had gone back home and tended to his own business. ‘Listen to me and shut the fuck up,’ he said. ‘I don’t give a damn fuck what you put up with. You fat little piggy-piggy, stinky little pussy-pussy. Fat pig. Fat pig. Stinky pussy. I’m trying to talk, you fuckin pig. I just want to be an American hero. Yes. That’s why I wanted to be in the military. I would love to do something and be a hero.’ He then hung up.

Terry and Sam talked a lot about the vehicles in front. One of the cars had a bumper sticker that said ‘Yee-ha Is Not a Foreign Policy,’ and Sam laughed at this at first, but then, correcting himself, he began to get excited as Mississippi Interstate 55 filled up with military humvees. With an increasing number of bent or snapped trees lining the road, the military personnel whizzed past in the afternoon sun, wearing claret berets, designer sunglasses, and chewing gum like teenagers in an ad for American nonchalance. Sam bashed his fist on the steering wheel and whooped. ‘I say praise them all,’ he said. He beeped the truck’s horn and shook Terry. ‘Hey, bitch,’ he said. ‘I wanna flag. Reach out the window and grab the flag off the back of that fire truck.’

‘I wouldn’t touch that flag with a 200-foot pole,’ Terry said.

After giving his partner the finger Sam logged onto the internet, then he reached out and flipped open his phone. ‘Damn,’ he said. ‘I ain’t got a single bar on my phone. I can’t call out.’

‘Great,’ said Terry.

‘Fuck you, you black African-American bitch.’

When Hurricane Katrina grazed New Orleans, people thought the city had got off lightly. Trees were uprooted, some verandahs collapsed in the city’s older districts, shutters were blown into the street, windows were shattered in a number of downtown office blocks, but that first night, people were still drinking hurricane cocktails in Pat O’Brien’s bar in the French Quarter: four ounces of good dark rum added to four ounces of hurricane mix, garnished with an orange slice, a maraschino cherry, and tons of laughter into the night. It was only during the following days that the disaster put a stop to the music: the levees broke, and slowly at first, then very quickly, the bowl-shaped city began to fill up with water and then to drown in its own toxic effluent.

The worst inundations happened in poor areas. Almost a third of New Orleanians live below the poverty line – 67 per cent of the population is black – and in the most densely populated areas the water, after several days, had flooded the houses past the second floor. Relations between the New Orleans Police Department and the city’s poorest citizens are notoriously bad: last year, according to the columnist Jack Shafer, when 700 blank rounds were fired in one of those neighbourhoods, nobody called the police. New Orleans’s homicide rate is ten times the national average. ‘Unless the government works mightily to reverse migration,’ Shafer wrote, ‘a positive side-effect of the uprooting of thousands of lives will be to deconcentrate one of the worst pockets of ghetto poverty in the United States.’

As the days passed, the federal and local authorities that had ignored long-standing and much-publicised warnings about deficiencies in New Orleans’s system of levees took up a position which people quickly recognised as having the putrid odour of an old wound. Even Fox News, which found nothing particularly strange in the detention policy at Abu Ghraib, faulted George W. Bush for mouthing empty can-do-isms while the mainly black people of deluged New Orleans were gasping for breath and water. As the city was plunged into several sorts of darkness, and people without cars or gas or money or health were abandoned for days at the city’s Superdome, the president flew above in Air Force One. His symbolic flypast offered a new perspective to those keen to know what America has become; for those in the filth and lawlessness of the Superdome, or those waiting on roofs for five days with no milk for their babies and no road on which to make good their escape, it was a vision of a president who could send 153,000 troops to the other side of the world at an official cost of $205 billion. That is what people know. They also know that if a Category Five hurricane hit, say, the Hamptons, then Air Force One – to say nothing of every helicopter on the Eastern Seaboard, and every public servant – would be requisitioned to save lives.

Two paramedics, in New Orleans to attend a conference, were caught up in the hurricane. ‘Two days after it hit,’ Larry Bradshaw and Lorrie Beth Slonsky wrote in a piece that appeared on the web a week or so after the hurricane,

the Walgreens store at the corner of Royal and Iberville streets remained locked. The dairy display case was clearly visible through the windows. It was now 48 hours without electricity, running water, plumbing. The milk, yoghurt and cheeses were beginning to spoil in the 90º heat. The owners and managers had locked up the food, water, Pampers and prescriptions and fled the city. Outside Walgreens’ windows, residents and tourists grew increasingly thirsty and hungry. The much promised aid never materialised and the windows at Walgreens gave way to the looters. There was an alternative. The cops could have broken one small window and distributed the nuts, fruit juices and bottled water in an organised and systematic manner. But they did not. Instead they spent hours playing cat and mouse, temporarily chasing away the looters . . . We are willing to guess that there were no video images or front-page pictures of European or affluent white tourists looting the Walgreens in the French Quarter.

Eighty per cent of New Orleans was underwater by the third day. Both the Superdome and the Convention Center were full and hellish, and the buses that were meant to evacuate people didn’t come. Disaster relief became a matter of volunteers. In situations of panic and urban emergency – especially when those situations are comprehensively mismanaged – victims can come to seem like enemies to the authorities. FEMA exists to make sure that never happens, and yet, in New Orleans, this became the dominant theme. And the military, when it finally arrived, only compounded the problem. Any black person in a supermarket was assumed to be a looter. The devastation and chaos caused by the hurricane were understood – by FEMA, the government, the police and the military – as a threat not to life and limb but to law and order. People trying to set up camps on the freeway in order to survive were treated as insurgents.

Sam and Terry were nervous when they arrived on the fringe of New Orleans. They had seen the reports about roving gangs, so Sam checked his gun and placed the bag around his neck as the truck approached a checkpoint. The state troopers were checking proof of residence and generally policing the traffic. The city was virtually empty by this point, and, off the record, troopers were saying that people remaining in New Orleans were to be treated with suspicion. ‘Hi, gentlemen,’ said Sam. ‘We’ve driven here from North Carolina and we want to help. I’ve got a chainsaw and a generator and plenty of water. Don’t know where the hell to start.’

‘Straight on,’ said the cop.

The smell was immediate, bosky, swamp-like and dark-fumed. ‘You can smell death around here,’ Terry said.

‘Look up,’ said Sam. ‘Chinooks everywhere. Look at that, man. Twin blades. Awesome.’ (A lone buzzard flew underneath the choppers.) Everybody kept talking about the trees. They had been damaged or destroyed for hundreds of miles. In New Orleans, they all inclined the same way, in rows, like a cheap painting of Hawaii in the breeze. The truck was covered in love-bugs, and they swarmed outside too. Mating flies, they copulate on the wing, and Sam was having trouble making room for them amid the war-movie excitement and his wish to get things done. ‘I hate these goddamn fuck-bugs,’ he said. He crushed a pair with a paper tissue. ‘Look,’ he said to Terry. ‘They died in each other’s arms. Thought you’d like that.’

Terry’s greatest concern in life is sex. He says so all the time. In the hour before they arrived at the flooded end of the Jefferson Highway, Terry said the word ‘pussy’ 26 times. At one point, waiting for gas, he rolled down the window as a young woman passed with a clipboard. ‘Mmmm. Uh-huh. I like it like that,’ he said.

‘Excuse me?’ she said, walking into the gas station.

‘I like its ass,’ he said in Sam’s direction, but Sam was on the phone. ‘I’m going in there to see what I can say to her.’ When Terry came back, phone-numberless but not in the least dejected, Sam chucked him a walkie-talkie he got at Wal-Mart and started to speak into the voice-piece.

‘Come in,’ said Sam.

‘Your mother,’ said Terry.

‘Your mother’s dick.’

‘And it’s a big one.’

‘Your mother’s a crack whore,’ Sam said.

Over the highway, the McDonald’s giant yellow M was bent like a corkscrew. The powerlines were down and the poles lay across the road or had crashed through houses. When their truck reached the first fully flooded area, Sam and Terry fell silent, as if awed by the scene or attending a church service. Sam kept his face close to the wheel as he drove the truck through the water. He stopped when he saw that to go further would mean getting stranded. Ahead of the truck, cars were floating or tipped on their sides against buildings.

The houses were cheaply built and quick to turn to papier-mâché. Yet it was obvious that not all the damage was nature’s work: cars abandoned at the side of the road had back seats covered with clothes still on their hangers with price tags attached. One of them had a pile of unopened CDs on the passenger seat. Terry got out of the truck and walked into the water. He met a guy called Terence who worked for the city’s road crew. He was wading though the water looking for relatives whose house was near the Jefferson Highway. The man’s friend and coworker was keeping him company. He said to Terry, out of Terence’s earshot, that their supervisor had already been told that Terence’s family were dead. Nobody could face telling him. Sam beckoned a policeman and asked him what was happening. ‘Tell you the truth,’ said the policeman. ‘We don’t know ourselves. We don’t have a clue.’ He said they had pulled some bodies out from under the rubble at the corner of Cicero and Jefferson.

The boys’ help was refused at most places. They went to the Ochsner Clinic Foundation and were greeted by a crimson-faced FEMA worker who was supervising the building of MASH tents outside the hospital. ‘We have electricity but no water,’ the man said. ‘The hospital’s full to capacity but we’re expecting more injured, so that’s the reason for the MASH tents. I don’t know what to tell you. It’s just so confusing.’ Someone else told Terry that in one of the hospitals the patients had been abandoned in their beds as the water rose and the staff were forced to flee. (Forty-five bodies were later found at the Memorial Medical Center.) There still were people in many houses. Sam was growing indignant. He felt he was answering a historic call for volunteers, and now that he was in the embattled zone no one knew how to make use of him. At one point, with a police escort, he drove the truck to the temporary headquarters of the Fire Department. On the way they passed many houses with signs outside saying: ‘You Loot, We Shoot.’ The person in charge at the Fire Department was not encouraging either. ‘We just had a fuckin volunteer guy fall out of a fuckin tree and land on a chainsaw,’ he said.

In some of the graveyards the coffins had risen with the tide and popped out of the ground, returning the bones and dust of the dead to the glare of the Louisiana sun. The climate was shot to pieces, yet not so much that the night air could fail to carry the scent of magnolia, or the same breeze now and then to lap prettily on the devastating waters. Every inch of New Orleans was a warning from Faulkner or Carson McCullers. The old, bleached hotels, with rotten water seeping up through their boards and plasterwork, were a series of flashbacks from Tennessee Williams; the floating chandeliers tangled with Spanish moss were Truman Capote’s; and the white-haired survivors, seeking a way out of town with their plastic bags of photo albums, were a tribute to Eudora Welty. It was the week Southern Gothic became a form of social realism, the grotesque and the biblical stepping out to fulfil an old legacy. But the aspect of New Orleans that will remain in the memory is the ghostliness: every citizen an image stranded at the centre of a civil rights mythology, a city of Boo Radleys, visible in half-light behind a series of splintered doors and broken windows, a thread of national prejudice travelling on the becalmed air and stinging the nostrils of those who once felt they truly belonged to the Big Easy.

Standing at the top of one flooded street, Terry noticed a glinting light at the far end where furniture and cars were floating among the fallen trees and a premature mud of autumn leaves. ‘It’s a terrible smell,’ he said. The light was not a person flashing a torch as first seemed possible. It was the sun glinting off a decapitated traffic sign.

‘Everyone’s gone, one way or another,’ said a man who came by with his wife. The man had owned a small post office behind the street. ‘It’s well hidden now,’ he said, ‘which might be lucky.’ New Orleans had become the thing that geological memory knew it to be – a voluminous swamp, a lake of reeds and tangled boughs, except that television sets and teddy bears and living people had got in the way.

Sam wanted to be pulling people from the water: he saw himself as being part of American heroism, and the chaos he encountered, the lack of direction, left him stranded in doubt about the authorities and about himself. Depressed, he stayed in the truck as Terry inspected the street.

‘Come back!’ Sam shouted as a group of black men suddenly appeared from a house and started walking in his direction. They loitered at the edge of the water and eyed the truck. Terry walked calmly back and when he climbed into the truck he saw that Sam had his gun out and was swearing over the steering wheel. ‘Let’s get the fuck away from here,’ Sam said.

‘The natives are restless,’ Terry said, opening a can of cold ravioli and eating it with a plastic spoon.

The military stopped the truck entering another part of town. ‘There’s a curfew,’ the soldier said. ‘It’s not a good place to be.’

‘All right,’ Sam said.

Further down the road, an old man wearing a hospital wristband was islanded on a grass bank. ‘I need help getting across there,’ he said. But the water stretched out in every direction with cars submerged up past their windscreens. His house was over there, under the water. The Salvation Army office was submerged too. Sam couldn’t do anything, so he tuned his walkie-talkie to listen in to the military.

‘If civilians want to go in they can go in,’ said the crackly voice. ‘But they should know they’re not getting back here if they don’t have a county resident’s pass. Do you copy?’

‘Yip,’ said the second soldier.

‘Did you leave a copy of the evacuation route over there?’

‘I don’t know where it’s at. The press are renting a boat from a guy over here and using this patch of water to get to people and their houses and stuff. Is that ok?’

‘I don’t think there’s much we can do about that. Over.’

Helicopters were grinding away over the flooded Shell Oil Metairie Plant. ‘Life is full of important choices,’ said a sign on the oil plant’s gates. ‘Make safety yours.’ Sam’s head was turned up to the sky and all the helicopter activity. ‘That’s a Huey 204, man,’ he shouted. ‘They haven’t used them since Vietnam. I’m tellin ya.’

Terry began laughing into his shirt as Sam hyperventilated trying to cross a bridge over the Mississippi. ‘This place has had it,’ Sam said. ‘It’s a muthafuckin cluster-fuck, man. Nobody knows what’s going on.’ After he’d made it onto a drivable part of the freeway – yellow school buses abandoned all the way down the route – he started shouting out the window at the military vehicles passing on their way into New Orleans. ‘Go home, you fuckin losers! You dumb Yankee fucks. Why don’t you go back and do somethin useful, like play paintball, you bitches!’

‘They’re crazy about looters,’ said Terry. ‘The troops shot one of them last night and they put a sign on him that said: “A thief died here.”’

‘He wasn’t white,’ said Sam. ‘I haven’t seen a single white person looting.’

‘You haven’t seen anyone looting,’ said Terry.

‘But it’s blacks, Terry. About two hundred of them.’

‘I done seen none,’ said Terry.

As the truck disappeared over the broken freeway and New Orleans receded in its soup of chemicals, Mayor Ray Negin came on the radio. His only song was about the failure of Washington. He had no plans of his own, nothing to propose. Blaming Washington was the only thing that mattered. There was an almost delighted tone to his self-exculpating voice. ‘Mosquitoes that are biting dead people are starting to fly,’ he announced.

Sam combed his hair in the whiteness of his rear-view mirror. ‘We’re needed in Mississippi,’ he said. ‘Gulfport, Biloxi. Those folks need what we’ve got. I just wanna help some people.’

Terry Harper had reckoned that a good way to get away from the trouble of school was to join the air force. He forged the date on his birth certificate and gained entry that way, leaving North Carolina on 31 October 1973. He was sent to Montana, where, he says, there was a lot of racism on the base. ‘The base commander threatened to have me shipped to Iceland,’ he said, ‘because I was fucking his daughter. I mean, there were only four black girls on the base and 140 black men and those girls charged for pussy.’ He got out of the air force after ten months and went to college to study mental health technology. ‘That was a fun time,’ he said. ‘Pussy for days, a different bitch every day if I wanted one. Me and this white guy, we had an apartment at the country club and we took women there.’ But he was married by then and his wife couldn’t stand his philandering so she asked him to leave. ‘She threw all the furniture I’d bought out in the street, man,’ he said. ‘It was all just lying there in the snow.’

Terry went to live in a mobile home. ‘It was a good thing Aids wasn’t poppin back then,’ he says. ‘Because I’d be some dead muthafucker. This stinky-assed bitch (she’s a preacher now): she lied and said I was fucking her and her husband came around with a .55 shotgun in his hand and told me he’d shoot me if I fucked around with his wife any more. I took the bitch out into a field the next day and said, “Bitch, you tried to get me killed today,” and I put a gun to her face and she was scared, man.’

Eventually, he went to graduate school in Atlanta. He got a Woodrow Wilson fellowship for $39,000 but dropped out because, he says, in a class of 66 people he was the only black. ‘I had no voice,’ he says. ‘I just felt I was in the wrong place. This was America and I had a God-given right to be heard but if you spit on me goddammit, I go directly to your ass. Things have stayed the same in a lot of ways. A whole lot of white muthafuckers, they think they can talk to you any old way they like.’ He ended up working with deprived kids. ‘Hard-assed kids,’ he said. ‘But you can make a difference to kids like that. One of them I worked with is now a district manager for Taco Bell. He runs three Taco Bells. He’s one of the most respected people I know.’

Terry has had problems with drugs and women. That’s what he says. He lost a good job as a drugs and alcohol counsellor because of cocaine (he was using on the job), then he lost his career as a photographer for the same reason. ‘My mother was killed by alcohol,’ he said. ‘From an early age I felt I had to compete with my brother. He always got everything. My sister, too. Back in the day, complexion was everything and she was whiter than me. Until recently, you couldn’t get anywhere near elected office unless you were light-skinned and that’s what I grew up with.’

Terry paused often when talking about his life. He wants to get things right. He wants to be honest. ‘I wanna get out of the Waffle House by next February,’ he said. ‘Back to Atlanta. Back to photography. I’m good at that.’ When he said this he hesitated and stared into the near future, then he smiled, as if there was something more essential about himself that he had not brought out. ‘I once fucked 58 women in one year,’ he said. ‘I had a contest with some guy – who could fuck the most women. And man, I even fucked his regular girlfriend. It isn’t that hard if you know how to go about it. We used to strip for wedding showers. It was a good thing, you know. Two hundred dollars a pop, plus tips.’

We couldn’t find a motel in Mississippi, so Sam parked the car in Hammond and we spent the night in the truck. A neon sign – ‘All You Can Eat Catfish’ – rasped through the early hours, and Sam occasionally woke up and bathed his face in the blue light of his laptop, typing furiously, attempting to figure out how best to reach the poor Americans who needed him. Terry propped his bad leg up on the dashboard. ‘Goddammit,’ he said at first light, ‘I might have to get me to an emergency room.’

‘Looks like we won’t be taking a bath today,’ Sam said, pouring talcum powder down the front of his shorts. ‘Mmm,’ he said. ‘Feels like gittin a whole new pair of drawers on, man.’

A woman walked by with her dog on a lead. ‘She’s got some ass, man,’ Sam said. ‘ Look it, Terry. She’s your colour.’

‘Hot damn!’ said Terry. ‘She’s got one of them be-donk-e-donk asses. It goes all the way down, baby. She’s fine.’

‘Go on, dawg! She make yo jump up and slap yo mama.’

Sam and Terry decided they might need more equipment to help the people of the Mississippi Delta, so they joined the dawn chorus at the nearest Wal-Mart, touring the near empty aisles in a couple of electric-powered buggies, the ones intended for the old and the infirm. It was the calmest they had been for days: the store muzak dimming all anxiety as they threaded through the lanes. They chucked insults across the gaps and eventually Terry pulled up at one of the checkouts with a basketful of cheap toys. ‘A dollar each, right?’ he said. The girl looked at him strangely, but Terry was sure there would be children in Mississippi who had lost all their toys.

Beside the front doors, an overweight pensioner was talking to her neighbour. ‘What if the Great Man Upstairs says: “You haven’t learned your lesson yet, you need some more?”’ she said.

‘God praise the volunteers,’ said the neighbour. ‘That’s all I can say. The volunteers are the salt of the earth.’

On the Mississippi coast, the morning seems to arrive not out of the sky but out of the trees, a golden show coming slowly until the day is bright and firmly begun. ‘We’re gonna do good today,’ Sam said.

‘We already did good,’ said Terry. ‘We’s offering. That’s all we can do and if the people wants help they’ll get it.’

‘Today,’ said Sam. ‘I’m serious as a heart attack.’

As the truck entered Gulfport, a holiday town that had taken the full force of the hurricane the Sunday before, some of Sam’s general edginess was beginning to influence Terry’s view of the situation. ‘I wish some of them TV news stations would interview me,’ he said. ‘CBS, NBC, CNN, all those muthafuckers. I’d tell them like it is. They’re saying: “This is needed, that is needed.” Everything is here, man, they’ve just got to use it right. These utility people, man. They’re tellin like they’re working round the clock. That’s complete bullshit, straight out lies. They’re not leaving their motels until ten in the morning.’

‘They oughta be organised just like the military,’ Sam said.

‘You don’t know jack shit,’ said Terry.

‘Don’t tell me what I don’t know. I work with television. I know about cable. Them boys care about people. You just got a goddamn chip on your muthafuckin shoulder, Terry.’ The boys argued often, but they would always retreat from any serious confrontation by hooking onto some shared joke, usually about a passing woman. ‘I could grunge-fuck that bitch,’ Sam said of a woman walking past a convenience store in Gulfport. ‘She’s just the way I like ’em.’ On the other side of the road, a 16-wheeler truck full of hearses was being unloaded, hearse by hearse, in the forecourt of a gas station that had no gas.

Gulfport was struck by winds of 160 mph. The morning had started out very blue and very calm, but dark clouds broiled in the sky and Hurricane Katrina ripped over the Gulf and slammed through all the towns and villages on the Mississippi coast. The casinos that stood at the ocean front in Gulfport were gutted and several of them had ended up on top of the freeway. The devastation was still spectacularly obvious: lorries piled on top of one another; hotels pulped, with glass and mud and trees and bathroom products scattered over a massive area. Concrete had been blown apart. Metal was twisted. And for five or more streets back from the ocean, people’s houses were splintered.

By the time we reached Gulfport, the military were very much in evidence, though nobody knew what to do with them. A lot of saluting took place, a lot of standing before maps of the devastated areas. As in all military zones, a great deal of attention was taken up with the troops themselves – transporting them, feeding them, briefing them, guarding them. Only sporadically were they put to work. Some people concluded that they were there to provide a show of force, a warning to looters, and evidence that the federal government now cared. Yet the real stuff of the Mississippi relief effort was being run by agencies and volunteers. It might be said that the salient characteristic of the modern American military is that they always appear homesick, they always seem alienated, and they always look bored. This may be true of any mil-itary force in any part of the world, but it was certainly true of the American soldiers who came to serve in the American South.

The Volunteer Command Post was in a school just outside the town and much of the military was stationed there. As Sam drove up he was flagged down by four young men in uniform. Three of them appeared to be 17 years old, and the one who stepped forward to speak, the one with authority, was no more than 19. Sam rolled down the window.

‘Morning, zug-zug,’ said the officer.

‘Hi,’ said Sam.

‘Have you any weapons, zug-zug?’

‘Sorry?’

‘In the truck, sir. Do you have any weapons in the truck? Zug-zug.’

Sam looked at Terry and shrugged. ‘A hand gun,’ he said.

‘I have to check that, zug-zug,’ said the officer.

He walked off to speak to a superior and Sam turned with his mouth open. ‘What in fuck’s name is he saying? What’s this “zug-zug”?’

‘Fucked if I know,’ said Terry.

The young officer came back shaking his close-shaved head. ‘I’m afraid we can’t allow any guns on the facility. Zug-zug.’ The men behind the officer were smiling now.

‘What is this “zug-zug” shit?’ asked Sam. The officer broke into a broad smile and his men cracked up behind him.

‘It’s just a joke we’ve got going, sir,’ he said. ‘Things are a bit slow out here, so he just dared me to say “zug-zug” after everything I said.’

‘Oh, cool,’ said Sam. ‘I got ya. What I’ll do is, I’ll go and bury this gun and then come back. Is that all right with you?’

‘Do what you have to do, sir.’ Sam drove along the road and buried the gun as he said he would, right in an old pile of dirt next to an abandoned house. When he drove back the soldiers searched the car and then waved us through.

Nothing fazed Adam, the co-ordinator, nothing excited him, nothing moved him: he was a disaster professional, a young man hardened by too much experience, practical to the point of insolence. ‘The thing about this situation,’ he said. ‘Many people downtown who look like they need help, who’ve suffered a lot of devastation, they can afford to pay for having trees cleared and cars towed. You don’t have to do it for them. It’s the poor and vulnerable ones you have to look out for. If I drive down there and I see generators outside people’s houses I just drive on. That’s the way it is. There are folks who need help who would be happy to see you guys. Be choosy about who you help.’

Sam had nodded through this speech, but he did not take any of its detail to heart. He had come from North Carolina because he had watched television and felt Hurricane Katrina presented a challenge to ordinary people as well as an opportunity for self-definition. He didn’t mind who he helped. New Orleans had been too murky and unreal, too spooky, too inaccessible, but, here in Mississippi, Sam was going to do his bit for America. On the backroads of Gulfport he drove the truck and kept his eyes open. Powerlines had collapsed and every house had something shattered or crippled about it. In one of the nicer drives, Sam spotted an old white man and his wife trying to lift a generator down from the back of a pickup truck. He hit the brakes and swerved into their drive.

Eli Myrick has lived and worked in Mississippi all his life. That day, it being hot, he was wearing light-coloured shorts, a polo shirt and a straw hat, with white towelling socks climbing up his weak legs in a style both senior and fresh. Sam and Terry got to work lifting down the Myricks’ new generator. Their house had lost power and one of the walls had caved in with the force of the hurricane. They were well off, though, and had a second house out of the state, so this was all just a pest. Sam was kneeling on their patio dealing with the transfer of gas from the old generator and Mr Myrick leaned against the kitchen door, pleased but also not pleased, the eclipse of his competence almost too evident in the words of his wife. ‘Oh let them do it, Eli. You’ll only hurt your back. Oh, honey, let them go ahead. Step back. That’s right. They know what they’re doing. This young man’s an engineer, Eli.’

Mrs Myrick brought pink lemonade and Spam sandwiches for the boys and told them about her years as a history teacher. ‘Well,’ she said. ‘I was just saying to my friends the other day: with all this terrible business happening to us here in the South, it proves that the Civil War will never be over. God save us from the North.’

Terry was leaning against the truck when Sam came out. ‘That sandwich she gave us sure was salty,’ he said.

Sam drove on and parked the truck on the ocean front, where Chiquita Bananas lorries lay about like crumpled toys. People who ignored warnings and remained on this stretch died instantly when the hurricane hit the shore. Terry walked into the shell of an old employment centre: there was nothing left, not a paper-clip or an office chair; a spout of toxic water bubbled up from a hole in the concrete floor. In the car park outside, where huge trees lay snapped in two, a tennis ball was pushed softly by the remaining wind. Terry saw a wheelchair abandoned in the middle of the highway: earlier, he had wondered why so much of this destruction was somehow familiar, and he realised he had seen it before, like every other person in America, in War of the Worlds.

The streets behind the ocean were no-go areas. The army were discouraging people from entering. But Sam and Terry drove round, looking for people to save or simply to help in their struggle with the collapsing buildings. Where the houses had doors, many of them were marked with orange paint and a number, which indicated how many had died there. The sight of the devastation had a different effect on the two men: it made Sam more practical, calling out to people he saw to ask if they needed help with the rubble, had enough cold water, or were OK inside. But with Terry the dreadful sights of Mississippi brought him further into contact with his militant past. He saw the effects of inequality in the mud around him. At one point, someone said something about Jesus and Terry just shifted his bloodshot eyes. ‘Let me tell you about this country,’ he said. ‘The Catholic Church is filled with the worst racists of them all. Some priest, he sucked 200 little dicks and you know what happened to him? He got a raise, man. They made him goddamn archbishop. And any black priests who commit adultery get kicked out the diocese. That’s it.’

‘Well,’ said Sam, surveying the ruins from the wheel. ‘I ain’t helping no black people. I just wanna see how bad they live.’ Then he sang a few bars of ‘God Bless America’. He saw a woman on a porch. ‘Man,’ he said into his dead walkie-talkie. ‘You’re so ugly you’d have to wear a pork chop around yo neck to get the dogs to play with you.’ Terry sniggered into life.

‘You’re so ugly you would scare a glass of water,’ he said.

The Red Cross had warned Sam and Terry that it was dangerous to drive in those areas without a military escort. One of the humvees had been shot at earlier that day. But the military men up at the command centre didn’t want to escort the boys: they didn’t think it was their job. It appeared that no one had bothered to establish a chain of command between the Red Cross and the military, so the people, such as Sam and Terry, who were delivering aid were expected to take their own risks and only help people they felt they could trust.

That night, the dark in Gulfport seemed darker than the dark of anywhere else. Electricity was still only minimally available and the stars looked down with keen eyes. Terry’s gouty ankle had grown to the size of a small planet, and he slept out in the open air at the back of the truck, stretched out on a long toolbox, his leg hoisted higher than the rest of him and pointing at the stars. Sam fell asleep in the driver’s seat with the broken walkie-talkie tight in his hand.

When he was a child, Sam was committed several times to Cherry Hospital, a place for children with problems. ‘I’ve always wanted my friends to come with me,’ he said. ‘But they never have. They never will. I don’t really have any friends, to tell the truth.’

He had Attention Deficit Disorder and the doctors put him on Ritalin. ‘I was always puking in the afternoon,’ he said. ‘I was like a zombie, but that stuff works in some way. I could rush through my lessons no problem but by 4.30 in the afternoon I’d be so angry. I’ve always been angry but that was too much even for me.’ Sam’s grandmother, who tried to look after him, turned to alcohol just as his mother had, and she spent a lot of his childhood in rehab. As a way of avoiding reform school, Sam went as a teenager to a place called Camp Ek-Su-Mee near Candor in North Carolina. It gave him a way of transcending danger and fear. ‘You had daily chores,’ he said. ‘Latrines. Pow-wow. Making kindling wood for the fire. All that. I cried like a bitch when I had to leave that place. They were like family – you woke up with them every day. I loved it there. I used to climb trees just to breathe, man. You could see for miles up there. The hills and everything.’

Sam said he’s always wanted a bigger purpose. ‘I also wanted a true friend,’ he said. He had two friends when he was young, Algernon and Moo-Moo, two black kids who died after being shot in separate incidents, but he always felt Cherry Hospital ruined his chances because people thought he was retarded. ‘Everybody always told me I’d be in prison by the time I was 21. Well, I’ve proved them wrong, haven’t I?’ Sam has made his work and his children and his truck the centre of his bid for renewal. And he always wants to make good the past. ‘One day I was talking with my father,’ he said. ‘We were talking about education and stuff, why I’d been passed over so much and had failed so badly. He told me that the whole time I was being sent off to the mental place, they were saying: “The son will be fine, save the mother.”’

Sam’s story, he indicated, even asleep with the walkie-talkie in his hand, is the story of how a person might overturn anger with usefulness, if not goodness. He isn’t sure that this will work but he hopes so. ‘I’ve always had this feeling,’ he said, ‘that there was something for me to do that was important and the whole world would know about it. I suppose this whole trip has been about that feeling.’

At the Orange Grove Elementary School a gymnasium was piled halfway up the bleachers with donated clothes. Some of them had tags indicating they had come from Utah, from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, and others were from people in Canada, Mexico or New York. Sam and Terry stood in the middle of the gym trying to separate the great heap into women’s, men’s, boys’, girls’ and babies’. Terry found A Bible Promise Book in a box of tangled T-shirts. He opened the book at random and saw a quote from Jeremiah. ‘I will rejoice in doing them good and will assuredly plant them in the land with all my heart and soul.’ Many of the T-shirts in the box had Coca-Cola logos on the front or American flags or Disney characters. A man walked past who had lost his house in Biloxi. His name was Leroy. His girlfriend and his mother had disappeared in the flood. ‘The walls of the house just opened up like a zipper,’ he said. ‘The tide dragged me out and then threw me back in again, just sucking me out with all the furniture and then back again and eventually I held onto a tree. Held onto that tree for 14 hours, just waiting for the storm to pass and someone to come get me.’ He looked down at the pile of skirts and bras and women’s jeans. His arms were badly burned where he’d hugged the tree.

A woman in her fifties came in and lifted some clothes out of the heap. Her name was Charlene. ‘All my memories floated out on that filthy water the day of the hurricane,’ she said. ‘Everything. I’m just gonna make a little pile here of clothes to take away.’ A Red Cross co-ordinator asked the boys if they’d load up their truck and take emergency supplies to some of the outlying towns, Long Beach and Pass Christian, that had been badly hit and were not getting enough help.

‘Let’s get to it!’ Sam said. ‘They’re desperate for food out there.’

They loaded up the truck with water, pasta sauce, baby food, assorted tins and military MREs – meals ready to eat. Long Beach was weirdly quiet, except for the sound of gas-fuelled generators. We stopped at the Conoco gas station and the woman who ran it clapped her hands and got her husband to help the boys unload. No sooner was the food on the ground than people were moving in to take it to their cars. ‘This is great,’ said the woman. Sam was like a field commander by this point: he found out what else they needed and arranged with the woman to bring further supplies, while calling Yolande in North Carolina to tell her what was happening.

‘He’s like a goddamn reporter,’ said Terry.

Many of the doors in Pass Christian were daubed with orange paint. A terrible, plague-like atmosphere existed among the shattered houses. It didn’t seem as if the hurricane had come in from the Gulf at all but had risen, instead, from the centre of the earth. Houses had simply been split down the middle or had exploded in a thousand flaws. Sam drove the truck to a drop-off point in the worst area and then felt excited. It was part of their camaraderie: whenever Sam was feeling pleased with himself he’d immediately start feeding Terry’s appetite for sexual repartee and girl-talk. A young woman and her boyfriend were holding hands under a battered bridge. Sam stopped the truck to ask if they were OK and then turned to Terry as he drove away. They did it in the style of an elaborate hip-hop-style joke.

‘I’d rape the fuck out of that pussy. You?’

‘All the way,’ said Terry.

‘We could mangle the boyfriend fucker,’ said Sam. ‘I’d hold her down for you. Would you hold her down for me?’

‘Nope,’ said Terry.

‘You wouldn’t hold her down for me?’

‘Nope. I don’t do that shit.’

‘Well, fuck you,’ said Sam. ‘There’s been a lot of fuckin rapin down here with this disaster shit.’

A woman called Audrey asked the boys if they’d put some of the supplies into the trunk of her car. She was 73 years old, wearing a polka-dot shirt and flowery shorts and carrying a bottle of water. She had a tumour on her neck. ‘I have terminal cancer,’ she said. ‘And my husband here, Mickey, he is on dialysis. We’re going to New Jersey so’s he can get his treatment.’ Audrey began to cry when someone brought up the subject of New Orleans. ‘I come from there,’ she said. ‘It’s too terrible. I think people should just get out of there and never go back. It can never be the old way again.’

That night was Sam and Terry’s last night in Mississippi. They had borrowed fold-down beds from the Red Cross and had set them up beside those of the refugees in the school library at Orange Grove. A Hispanic man had lost his identification and was worried about being able to get the $2000 relief package that FEMA was offering to hurricane victims. He sat on the edge of his bed in the library with a copy of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn on his lap. ‘I found this on the shelf,’ he said. The front of the book had a page with children’s names written out beside the date of borrowing. The man’s name was Carlos A. Garcia and he was 33 years old. ‘That Sunday morning,’ he said, ‘it started raining and there was a little wind. I lived in the apartment block at 601 Joseph Fine in Pass Christian. The block had a lot of Hispanic people living there. Not everybody speaks English. The storm got up and the trees were just breaking like crackers. The trees were bent over like people praying. The cars flew past the window, man, and then the stairs of the apartment got ripped off. We ended up on the roof, we put the old people up first. The water got so high that people were just swept off the roof and some of them jumped in. Twenty-four people from the apartment are lost and I just know they died.’

The shelter at Orange Grove School had a Stars and Stripes and a Confederate flag outside, rippling in the breeze. The night was ripe with the sound of crickets and some old men sat smoking and tapping ash into a bare tin can. The red sky had turned dark and the men were worrying about a new hurricane that was said to be gathering force outside Florida. A weeping woman came wandering across the car park and stopped a state trooper. Her child was clinging to the backs of her legs and seemed frightened. ‘We’re here in a shelter and he’s drunk. He’s over in that truck drinking beer and he’s drunk.’ She asked the officer to give her husband a breathalyser test but he demurred. The husband walked over and the woman pulled at her hair and shouted past him into the school windows: ‘If you can drink when we’re homeless! If you can do that! What’s the use?’

One of the old men tapped his ash several times and stared through the smoke at the other men. ‘Everybody’s got problems,’ he said.

Sam and Terry were bonding with the local boys. ‘We thought we could ride it out,’ said George McCraw. ‘We ended up running to the Gates Avenue Baptist Church two miles from the beach. Man, the roof was caving in and the children were screaming. The wind was poppin so bad and it was like rotor blades going over there. The steeple was coming off the church and the lightpoles were scattered across the road. Sparks flyin everywhere. You could feel the force of the hurricane move you, man. It was just like someone had dropped a bomb. You’d just never think water could do that damage. It was bad, man. We had just got on our feet down there. We found this little place and a good job and we had a car. We weren’t insured, though. Everything’s gone. It’s just toothpicks. But the Good Lord was with us the whole time. We looked hell straight in the eye. That’s what we did. We looked at hell.’

George’s younger brother wondered if there was any liquor to be had in Gulfport that night. ‘Not with the curfew,’ Sam said.

‘There’s a garage up by the freeway,’ George said.

Sam and Terry were told to load up as much of the supplies as they cared to take back to North Carolina. ‘You guys have earned it,’ said the Red Cross co-ordinator, shaking their hands. ‘I wanna thank you guys. You guys are patriots.’

They loaded up the truck and looked over at the homeless young guys pushing and joking under the white light above Orange Grove. ‘That bitch, woooo,’ said George’s younger brother. ‘She comes out here, eyes poppin like a frog.’

‘I’d bend her over and fuck her like a dog,’ George said.

‘That’s right,’ Sam said. ‘I hear you.’

Terry disappeared into the library to find a book and lie down with it. ‘Some drivin to be done tomorrow,’ he said. ‘I hope we can stop off in Atlanta. I wanna go and speak to that son of mine.’

‘He’s just an old dog lookin for a bone,’ said Sam. When most people had gone to bed, he walked across the car park and lingered there with a cigarette. He’d given his mobile phone to people who needed to make calls and he stood there thinking about friendship and looking into the trees. Sam looked to the very tops of the trees and then turned back to the school. There was laughter inside. ‘I’m going to miss you guys,’ he said.