As aid and evacuation efforts continue for the victims of Hurricane Katrina, it is on a very personal level that the storm has been most devastating. VOA White House Correspondent Scott Stearns toured the hardest-hit areas with President Bush Friday, and saw first hand what people lost and heard incredible stories of survival. In this reporter's notebook, he describes what he saw in the inundated cities of New Orleans and Biloxi, Mississippi, which were hardest hit.
Katrina's fury was clear from the moment Air Force One touched down at Keesler Air Force Base, siding ripped from the building next to the control tower and downed trees littering this base outside Biloxi, Mississippi.
The president's motorcade wound through the debris, over streets of mud, past furniture drying in the yards of destroyed houses, around trucks tossed on their sides by the storm's strong winds.
Turning left down Howard Avenue, just a block from the Gulf of Mexico, what had been a neighborhood is now a jumble of cinder blocks and timber.
Bobby Lane and his family tried to ride out the storm in his home, until his son came running into the bedroom.
"The boy woke me up and said, 'Daddy, the water is coming through the door.' So, the water started rising from the door," said Bobby Lane. "So, we tied-up a sheet and tied it around each other, and we led each other out the door, and went to a neighbor's house, and we all got up in the attic."
They were in the attic three hours, the water still rising.
"We looked out the ventilation of the attic, and we saw the water about a foot from the attic," he said. "Man, the women asked what was going on. So, we had to lie to them, and tell them something different. You know what I'm saying? We didn't want to get them upset. It was a horrible sight, I'll tell you that."
Kevin Miller came out to meet the president and said it was a welcome break from the misery and despair that has gripped the neighborhood since Katrina struck. Mr. Miller rode out the storm 7.5 meters up a tree. He says it felt like a stock car race.
"It was like being in NASCAR without the car, water going one way and the wind going the other," said Kevin Miller. "It about likely tore me apart I felt. A lot of people floating by. I can't believe how many people made it under the circumstances. It was a rush."
Standing at what was once a Methodist homeless shelter, President Bush said no one can be prepared for the vastness of Katrina's destruction.
"You can look at a picture, but until you sit on that doorstep of a house that used to be, or stand by the rubble, you just can't imagine it," said George W. Bush.
Charles Grant was in the upstairs hallway of the United Methodist Seashore Mission when the building came apart.
"When it let loose, it let loose," said Charles Grant. "Bricks were falling on us. I gave up, and, somehow, floated to the top, and there was a big white roof there, and I got on top of it, and that was the end of it. I stayed there for four hours in the storm."
Among the ruins of Howard Avenue are the small signs of past lives: broken records, the base of a green kitchen blender, a soggy videotape of the movie, "The Godfather."
Gary and Valentina Stillwell sit under a tarp in what was once the garden of a home built in 1855. All that is left is three front steps. The house they were attached to floated away.
Gary Stillwell: "We rode our house 2.5 blocks. If you look over to the left here, you'll see a little white outcropping with a roof and shingles and a bunch of trees. That stopped us from going any further."
Scott Stearns: "What's it like to be in your house as it's moving down the street?"
Valentina Stillwell: "First, we kind of watched everybody else's house float by, and we kept going, 'Isn't that roof Ann and Art's, or Ted and Sandy's?'"
For all that is gone, Gary Stillwell has not lost his sense of humor. "We thought about moving but not in this manner," he said.
President Bush left Biloxi by helicopter for an aerial tour of the damage. Rows of red shipping containers floating in the Gulf. Boats wedged in trees. Cars in backyard pools. Railroad wagons scattered along twisted track.
Over New Orleans, all the boats of a marina are piled in a corner, as if you cleared your children's toys by picking up one end of the rug.
At the city's 17th Street Levee, a steam shovel clears debris from the channel, as dump trucks try to fill a breach that has left most of the city under several meters of water.
President Bush looks out over a fire from a broken gas line burning on the surface of the water, bubbles boiling up from underneath. Catfish jump at the stained glass windows of a Baptist church.
"These are tough times," he said. "This is a storm the likes of which I pray I never see again."
Once the levee is fixed, engineers say it will take weeks to pump out all the water. President Bush says $10 billion of emergency assistance is just a down payment on what will be needed to restore coastal communities and rebuild New Orleans. Officials say that could take months or even years.