Charles and Camilla tour damaged New Orleans

NEW ORLEANS - Britain's Prince Charles and his wife, Camilla, climbed a New Orleans levee on Friday to see firsthand the devastation caused when Hurricane Katrina overwhelmed the barriers and flooded the historic city.

The visit, seen as helping to focus international attention on the recovery effort, was one stage in the royal couple's tour of the United States, which also included a visit to New York and a state dinner at the White House.

From the levee, the shattered panorama of the city's lower Ninth Ward stretched out before them, a scene of chaos that looked more like a war zone than an American neighbourhood.

Charles has said he will donate a $25,000 prize he was given by a Washington institution for contributions to architecture and urban design to help rebuild communities in the Gulf Coast area ravaged by Katrina.

On top of the windy levee, Charles was shown photographs of the destruction immediately after Katrina struck on August 29 and how the barrier was repaired by the US Army Corps of Engineers.

The couple then walked down the steep earthen barrier - Camilla in heels holding the prince's arm - to a receiving line of emergency workers and National Guard troops, praised by the heir to the British throne for their dedication.

This is the first US visit for the couple, who married in April after being lovers for three decades despite being married to other partners.

Celebrity-loving Americans had a great fondness for Charles' divorced wife, Princess Diana, who died in a car crash in Paris in 1997. Camilla, a more matronly figure who is clearly completely relaxed with the prince, has been given a respectful but less feverish reception.

Red Cross worker Frances Barker told reporters at the levee: "They were really gracious people. He just said, 'Keep up the good work."'

Their weeklong US itinerary earlier included a stop at Ground Zero in Manhattan where the couple honoured victims of the September 11, 2001, attacks, and a two-day visit to Washington.

In New Orleans, the couple also went to a Catholic school in the French Quarter where some in the 500-strong crowd gave them traditional colourful Mardi Gras beads that they wore around their necks throughout the visit.

Inside, they were greeted by singing students, one of whom appeared confused about where Charles was from.

"Is there a map around here so I could show him where England is?" Charles asked. Unfortunately, none was easily available.

While life is slowly returning to the French Quarter, the historic heart of the city, and parts of the high-rent Garden District, hard-hit neighbourhoods such as the mostly black Ninth Ward may never fully recover.

Charles was asked by one reporter what struck him most about his visit. "Incredible resilience, despite awful loss," he replied. "Where there's life, there's hope."

The couple later were flying to San Francisco, where their tour is due to end on Tuesday.

- REUTERS

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