What has happened to New Orleans and the Louisiana coastline is the stuff of the darkest imaginations of a disaster movie. But bad as it is, the worst is almost certainly still to come as disease spreads from decaying bodies and sewage contamination, the lack of clean water to drink, basic foods for sustenance and medical resources. It is estimated that 50'000 people remained in New Orleans despite the warning to leave ahead of the hurricane. Assuming good management of the crisis, a lot of good luck will still be needed if the worst–case scenario is not to become reality.

Containing this widespread disaster, restoring some kind of normality to the lives of those immediately affected and planning a long–term recovery will test President Bush's qualities to the utmost. In a debate with Vice–President Al Gore in the Presidential campaign of 2000 Mr Bush said that ”natural catastrophes are a time to test your mettle”. Unfortunately, his first response on Wednesday did not inspire confidence. The New York Times, in a leading article yesterday, entitled Waiting For A Leader, said that Mr Bush ”gave one of the worst speeches of his life, especially given the level of national distress and the need for words of consolation and wisdom.” He reeled off a list of pounds of ice, blankets and generators that had been delivered to the stricken areas and asserted that ”America will be a stronger place” for enduring this crisis but did not explain why this may prove to be so.

Everyone will hope that the emergency services get on top of their formidable problems as quickly as possible, even though the National Guard is only at about 60 per cent strength with so may serving in Iraq, and that the ordeal of those scattered around the areas inland of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast without knowing what has happened to their homes will not be indefinitely prolonged. At the same time the needs of those still trapped in the 80 per cent of New Orleans under water should have priority; one report yesterday pointed out that most of who remained were black or poor and had no choice because no public transport was provided for the pre–hurricane evacuation.