A CLUSTER of around 20 evacuees had gathered on the north ramp of the Houston Astrodome, each clutching papers to their chests and anxious to address the journalists standing before them. A woman aged in her mid-50s stepped forward and took the microphone. "I am not a refugee, I am not a victim. My name is Linda Jeffers and I am a survivor," she said.
She raised her eyes to the sky, gave thanks and declared that she had been "highly favoured and blessed" to have got this far - a remarkable attitude considering what she had been through. Her home in New Orleans weathered Hurricane Katrina on August 29, but began filling with floodwater the next day after Lake Pontchartrain burst through the levees and deluged the city. Neighbours hot-wired a deserted boat, snatched her to safety from her rooftop and found shelter in a hardware store until they were rescued and brought 350 miles by bus to Houston.
Now she has nothing and home is a camp-bed on the floor of the Astrodome, an indoor arena that was commandeered to house evacuees. She does not want people to feel sorry for her, though; she simply wants evidence that the federal operation to re-house, clothe, feed and financially assist the million-plus people displaced from New Orleans is under control. So far, she doesn't see it.
There is no central database through which survivors can trace loved ones from whom they were separated in the chaos of evacuation, for example. Many separated families remain scattered across America. Even if they trace one another's whereabouts, many have no money or transport to facilitate a reunion.
Evacuees are gradually being shunted out of mass shelters and into smaller facilities run by groups such as the Red Cross, Salvation Army and churches. They have little or no say in where they end up. They do not have the cash to get on a bus and ride to the job centre to find work. If they apply for financial assistance from Fema - the Federal Emergency Management Agency - it will be at least seven to ten days before the first of the money comes through.
When it does, it will be by cheque. Having fled their homes without a single possession, some people do not even have the means to prove to their banks that they are who they say they are, in order to cash them.
The papers tucked under Jeffers' arm are petition sheets, which she is circulating around the Astrodome and other shelters. They demand immediate cash grants for evacuees as well as longer-term recovery packages, a transition to dignified living away from mass shelters, the setting up of a publicly accessible database and improved communications with evacuees.
Grateful as they are for the help they have received, Jeffers and her fellow survivors feel that the time has come for them to have a say in their futures. They do not trust Fema, which made such a fatal shambles of the evacuation and rescue effort in New Orleans, with helping them to rebuild their lives.
"We waited for days in attics, on rooftops, on interstates. We waded through dark, infected water. We watched helicopters pass us by," says the petition.
"We saw the best of humanity, individuals who risked their lives for their neighbours and for strangers. We saw the worst of official confusion and neglect - a failure to plan for and respond to a tragedy that was understood, modelled, mapped and predicted. A failure that has left thousands dead unnecessarily."
These words have been voiced in one form or another by hundreds of victims, commentators and politicians since Hurricane Katrina struck two weeks ago. The criticism of the failures of America's authorities at both state and federal level to cope effectively with the tragedy has left the Bush administration shaken.
On Friday, the beleaguered Fema chief Michael Brown was sidelined, seen as the first step towards attempting to restore some order to, and confidence in, the relief effort. It was perhaps inevitable that Brown should find himself removed from the field. Only nine days ago, President Bush, on his first visit to the hurricane zone, met with relief officials and announced in front of reporters: "Browny, you're doing a heck of a job".
Tellingly, on Bush's second visit four days later, Brown was kept behind the scenes and the president, declaring himself "not satisfied" with the relief effort, was escorted instead by Michael Chertoff, secretary of the Department of Homeland Security.
That same day, Chertoff announced that Vice-Admiral Thad Allen, third in command of the US Coast Guard, was taking over control of the federal relief effort.
Amid the recriminations over the slow government response to the unfolding tragedy, Brown's star had waned. An article in Time magazine, suggesting that Brown embellished his CV to get the job in 2003, did not help and Chertoff was left to peddle the unconvincing line that Brown had not been sacked but was simply needed back in Washington to oversee "the big picture".
In a later interview on Friday, Brown said he did not know why he had been replaced, blamed the press for his woes and shared the news that he was going home to walk his dog, hug his wife, eat a decent Mexican meal and drink a stiff margarita before returning to work.
Some experts say Brown is merely the scapegoat for a relief effort that failed on so many other levels, not just federal or in the White House.
Questions have also been raised, for example, over the failure of New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin to order the city's fleet of school buses into action to evacuate residents, many of whom live below the poverty line and had no means of fleeing independently, before the storm hit.
Then there is the mystery as to why Kathleen Blanco, the Democrat Louisiana governor who attempted to shift the spotlight from herself to the White House by threatening to punch the President, refused to send in National Guard troops in any significant number to assist the post-flood rescue and evacuation effort. Even now, she still refuses to sign them into federal control so that their contribution can be better co-ordinated.
If ever an emergency plan existed for New Orleans, it was never apparent at even the most basic level. Civic and parish officials did not even have a working satellite telephone between them to communicate with state officials in the state capital Baton Rouge as the floodwaters began gushing through the streets. They were reduced to hauling themselves along to the local radio station and collapsing weeping on air with their pleas for help.
Hundreds of civilian volunteers and others from fire departments, coastguard auxiliary units and search and rescue specialists, hooked their boats to their trucks and drove from all over the US to help save lives. In the days immediately following the disaster, many were simply corralled at the side of the I-10 Highway leading into the city, or turned away from roadblocks by state police and told to go home, because there was no authority on the scene to co-ordinate them. Meanwhile, thousands sat stranded in the floods without food or drinking water awaiting help, some dying.
Patrick Derouselle and several colleagues from the Ville Platte Volunteer Fire Department in Louisiana were among those who made it through the roadblocks and took to the water, helping to rescue people day and night from their roofs and attics by boat.
When they were not on the water, they were at Camp Clover Leaf, a point on the I-10 Highway leading into New Orleans to which those saved from the floods - including thousands of hospital patients - were initially brought. They worked themselves to the point of exhaustion helping evacuees off helicopters, reassuring sobbing mothers and children, and soaking towels in water for week-old babies to suck on.
There were not even stretchers or wheelchairs to carry the sick and infirm. Instead, the volunteers staggered to and fro with them on their backs. "We'd get 40 or so people off one helicopter and by the time we'd turned around and drawn breath there'd be another one landing, one after the next after the next. It was relentless," said Derouselle.
Two days later, firefighters from Texas turned up - funded by Fema - and announced that they were taking over. The volunteers were told that their assistance was no longer required, yet tens of thousands of people remained in need of help.
"We know there were people who needed us," said Derouselle. "It's disappointing, but we are proud of what we did - we know we made an impact."
Professor Nicole Dash, a disaster research expert at the University of North Texas, said: "The blame for the bad response lies at all levels of government. The mayor has to be looked at; was there a plan that could have been implemented? I've been looking for a New Orleans emergency plan for days and not found one.
"One individual didn't create the problem. This was a systematic failure on a variety of levels. Removing Michael Brown is a symbolic move and people who really think Fema didn't respond will be pleased. But things are starting to work. The challenge remains how you move 500,000 people into new jobs and opportunities and how they get their lives back together."
Fema's ineptitude has, at times, graduated from bumbling to farcical. One planeload of evacuees landed in Charleston, West Virginia, last week to find nobody there to greet and accommodate them. Meanwhile, 390 miles away in Charleston, South Carolina, a team of doctors and aid agency volunteers stood forlornly on the runway waiting to assist people who never came. Someone at Fema, it appears, had muddled the two cities.
Then there was the chaos and confusion that surrounded Fema's much vaunted debit card giveaway, a bank card containing a $2,000 credit for each qualifying evacuee family to help meet their immediate expenses, including hotel bills, the cost of new clothes, food and petrol.
The agency intended that the cards would be available to the quarter of a million people displaced by the storm to Texas, but withdrew from the project fearing that its desks at the Houston Astrodome would be swamped not only by evacuees but by many of the city's resident poor.
Fema promised instead that the money would be paid by cheque to those who could prove they qualified, provoking anger among those who had no way of receiving mail, much less any means of proving their identity at a bank.
"Some of them didn't even have shoes when they left their homes, let alone identification to cash a cheque," Dr Dash said.
There is also concern over whether the money will really get to those most in need. Last September, when Hurricane Frances struck the east coast of Florida, more Fema money was given to self-declared "victims" in Miami-Dade County, which suffered no worse than a "typical summer thunderstorm" according to weather experts, than those in hard-hit Martin County, 100 miles to the north where the storm came ashore.
Fema paid more than $28m in relief to claimants in and around Miami without inspection or assessment. Residents who had been nowhere near the storm bought swanky new cars, luxury furniture and high-tech household appliances, and were reimbursed funeral expenses for relatives who had died from cancer or heart attacks - all they needed was a doctor's note certifying that they had suffered from storm-related "stress". Despite mounting evidence of fraud following an investigation by a local newspaper, and repeated calls for an inquiry, Brown defended the payouts. Months later, 20 people were indicted on fraud charges and Fema started asking for its money back, finally accepting it had been scammed.
Still smarting from the experience, the agency has so far refused to pay claimants in Miami who were affected when Katrina crossed south Florida as a Category 1 hurricane just over two weeks ago before hitting the southern US states as a Category 4.
Fema has become a by-word for the chaos and ineptitude that has surrounded the Hurricane Katrina response over the last fortnight. Politicians and public officials are now scrambling in all directions to either point the finger, or to avoid having the finger pointed at them - a phenomenon that late-night comedian Jay Leno, has termed Operation Cover Your Ass - as the blame game continues.
People like Linda Jeffers will be looking to Vice Admiral Allen to restore public confidence in the agency and forge unity between the numerous disparate groups struggling to bring relief to the south. His background in handling national crises would appear to make him more suited to the role than Brown, who joined Fema after 11 years as a commissioner of judges for the International Arabian Horse Association.
Allen, a 56-year-old grandfather and the US Coast Guard's chief of staff for three years, co-ordinated the service's response to the September 2001 terrorist attacks, securing ports and harbours around the country and ensuring that sufficient vessels, aircraft and personnel were on hand. He is also noted for his diplomatic knack, having calmed tensions with Cuban refugees after a series of confrontations at sea off Florida two years earlier.
It will take more than the diplomatic and organisational skills of one man to sort out the devastation of Katrina, but for the refugees left in her wake, there may finally be some glimmer of hope for the future.