Hurricane Katrina is the costliest natural disaster in American history. Striking the Gulf States in late August 2005, it affected over 90,000 square miles along the coastal regions of Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi, including the city of New Orleans. The human cost of the storm is estimated at more than 1,400 deaths. More than 250,000 buildings were destroyed. The economic cost is hard to calculate, but will greatly exceed the $110 billion the federal government pledged to spend in the year following Katrina. Above and beyond the financial and human costs, Hurricane Katrina exacted a high psychological cost on Americans who felt embarrassed by the inability of all levels of government to manage the emergency. Moreover, Katrina reopened the question of race in American society in a dramatic and unexpected way.
Katrina officially became a hurricane on August 24, 2005 near the Bahamas. The following day it moved across Southern Florida between Miami and Fort Lauderdale, causing flood damage, destroying buildings, and killing nine people before it passed out to the Gulf of Mexico as a category one storm. On the Gulf, Katrina gained strength at an astonishing rate. As Katrina grew in intensity, she moved north toward New Orleans. On Friday, August 26, Governor Kathleen Blanco issued a state of emergency for Louisiana. By Saturday it was becoming clear that the storm’s path would take it close, if not directly over, New Orleans. Saturday evening Max Mayfield, director of the National Hurricane Center in Miami, Florida, conducted a conference call with Blanco, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin and Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour in which he urged them to issue mandatory evacuations to all areas in Katrina’s path.
Later that evening, Mayor Nagin issued a voluntary evacuation order for New Orleans, and authorities made all lanes of traffic on the interstate highways open to northbound vehicles only. On Sunday, August 28, Katrina was upgraded to a category five hurricane with winds of 170 miles per hour. While over 80 percent of New Orleans’s population of 460,000 followed Mayor Nagin’s advice and evacuated, many of the city’s poorest citizens remained, including the sick and the elderly. As best they could, those left behind migrated to the Superdome or Convention Center, the officially designated shelters of last resort. At 10:00 Sunday morning, after receiving a National Weather Service advisory that predicted severe flooding, Mayor Nagin issued a mandatory evacuation for the entire city. But it was too late. City plans for using school buses and Amtrak trains to evacuate New Orleans were not fully implemented. While some buses ferried citizens to the designated shelters of last resort, the failure of a large number of drivers to report because they had already evacuated or the city to post designated pick up locations greatly blunted the effectiveness of the operation. Neither the Superdome nor the Convention Center was prepared for the onslaught of over 30,000 people that came seeking shelter. Both facilities lacked adequate space, medicine, food, and water.
Between 2001 and 2005 a number of well publicized disaster scenarios had predicted a massive hurricane that could cause significant flood damage to New Orleans, a city which is mostly below sea-level protected by eighteen feet high levees that held back the canals, Mississippi River, and Lake Ponchartrain. Some of these models, such as the fictional “Hurricane Pam,” bore an eerie resemblance to Katrina. Stories about these scenarios appeared in the New Orleans Times-Picayune, which won a Pulitzer Prize for a series of articles, and National Geographic magazine, among others. However, complacency gripped many New Orleans residents who had seen several hurricanes, including Ivan in 1998, suddenly change course and skirt past the city. With tourism as the primary industry, Mayor Nagin and city leaders were fearful of scaring off visitors or damaging the economy by issuing a mandatory evacuation.
At 4:00, Sunday afternoon, the first rain fell in Louisiana and continued all night. On Monday, August 29, the full force of Katrina ripped through coastal Louisiana devastating Plaquemines and St. Barnard Parishes before slamming into New Orleans. Approximately 8 to 10 inches of rain and 120 mile-per-hour winds of Katrina swelled Lake Ponchartrain and overwhelmed the levees, causing them to fail for two reasons. First, they were overtopped by waves of water stemming from the rain and the high velocity winds. Second, and more serious, the levees breached, or broke open, filling New Orleans like an empty bowl as water from the canals and Lake Ponchartrain poured in. The breeches created surge waves that, measured as high as 17 feet which decimated all in their path and led to rapid flooding. The lower Ninth Ward, the poorest area of New Orleans, quickly lay under 8 feet of water. About 80 percent of the city was flooded during Katrina.
After hitting New Orleans, Katrina moved north and brought its destructive power to the coastal regions of Mississippi and Alabama. Biloxi and Gulfport, Mississippi, were both hit hard. In addition to the destruction of homes and businesses all 13 of Biloxi’s casinos were destroyed. Some were thrown off their moorings and moved several blocks by the sheer force of Katrina’s winds.
Lack of communication between local and federal officials hampered efforts to manage the storm. For example, on National Public Radio Michael Chertoff, Secretary of Homeland Security, the department that oversees the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) which handles disaster relief, stated that he had no knowledge of the thousands who were trapped in the New Orleans Convention Center, even though that story had been widely reported the day before by all the major television networks. Two days later President George W. Bush congratulated FEMA head Michael Brown for doing “a great job.” To many it seemed undue praise to a man who bungled the federal rescue operations from the start. With Brown drawing too much heat, President Bush replaced him on September 9 with Coast Guard Vice Admiral Thad Allen.
Scenes from New Orleans and the Gulf Coast were horrifying, and the nation watched in shock as these events unfolded. The floodwaters rushed in so quickly that many residents could only escape to the upper floors or attics of their homes. Helicopters and boats rescued people trapped on roofs and treetops, sometimes using axes or chainsaws to get to those in attics. Lower floors of hospitals were flooded and patients had to be moved to the upper levels. In St. Bernard Parrish of New Orleans 34 residents at St. Rita’s nursing home were killed by flood waters. Many people were stranded on the overpasses of highways without water, food, or protection from the blazing sun, as temperatures soared into the upper 90s and the humidity level remained above 100 percent. Looting was rampant, but also exaggerated. Rescue workers could not tell if gunshots were snipers, or pleas for help from trapped residents. Floating bodies drifted in the floodwaters. Fearing the worst Mayor Nagin ordered 25,000 body bags, and Governor Blanco announced that the National Guard had authority to shoot looters or those hampering rescue operations on site. Uncontrolled fires, chemical contamination of the flood water, sewage, piles of garbage, rotting bodies, concern for alligators, snakes, and disease all added to the dangerous and toxic environment in the city. Homes were leveled in New Orleans and Mississippi to such an extent that some compared the scene to Hiroshima or Nagasaki, Japan after the atomic bombs of August 1945. Rescue workers searched through homes and spray painted the number of bodies found inside on the exterior of the building. Katrina knocked oil refineries, off-shore drilling facilities, and pipelines off line causing a nationwide spike in gasoline prices.
Conditions in the Superdome and Convention Center rapidly deteriorated. With failing electricity, poor ventilation and sanitation, and inadequate supplies, lawlessness prevailed, including cases of assault and rape. White sheets covered the elderly invalids who were found dead in their wheelchairs from want of medical care. While the police department attempted to protect the public good, many officers abandoned the city and did not show up for duty. With little disaster training and breakdown at the highest level of the department, officers on the street were not in a position to provide much help.
On Friday, September 2, the National Guard arrived at the Superdome and Convention Center with food, water, and supplies. Busses followed and mass evacuations began. Evacuees were taken to Baton Rouge, Louisiana and the Astrodome in Houston, Texas. Eventually Katrina refugees would be dispersed throughout the United States to such places as Dallas, Texas, Kalamazoo, Michigan, and Denver, Colorado, to name a few. Often it took weeks or months for evacuees to locate friends and family.
Katrina left as much controversy as destruction in its wake. Immediately questions emerged as to the lack of preparedness. The situation in New Orleans led the city and state officials to blame the federal government for the shortcomings of disaster relief. State officials launched a litany of charges against the Administration of President George W. Bush, including de-funding levee repair, leaving Louisiana without sufficient National Guard troops, and a lack of leadership. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Mayor Nagin declared that the city’s plan for the hurricane was to “get the people to higher ground and have the feds and the state airlift supplies to them.” The city, however, had several emergency plans that were never implemented.
The Bush administration and Republicans in Congress responded that the state and city governments did not follow their own emergency plans, and misdirected federal grant money for disaster preparedness. In fact, all levels of government were overwhelmed. Many Americans asked how national leaders could be so unprepared for a large scale emergency four years after the terrorist attack of September 11, 2001.
Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert, among others, questioned the wisdom of rebuilding a city so vulnerable to flooding. Environmentalists called a number of practices into question including the elaborate system of unnatural levees which have destroyed tens of thousands of acres of wetlands that might have buffered the impact of Katrina. President Bush put the matter of re-building to rest on September 15, 2005 when in a televised address to the nation from Jackson Square in New Orleans, he pledged federal assistance to rebuilding from the hurricane.
Katrina exacerbated racial tensions as well. Nearly 68 percent of New Orleans was black and disproportionately poor. Many blacks felt that they did not get the help they needed from the national government because of their race. President Bush’s publicized trip to the destroyed home of white Mississippi Senator Trent Lott, and his failure to make a similar trip to the devastated areas of New Orleans led many blacks to consider that reconstruction of their homes was at the bottom of the administration’s recovery priorities.
Controversy plagued other aspects of the federal recovery effort as well. When FEMA provided debit cards valued at $2,000 to over 900,000 victims of Katrina, examples of fraud and mismanagement made headlines across the nation. Suspension of federal contract and wage regulations in favor of large national firms at the expense of local businesses also led many to question federal priorities. Finally, Mississippi, which had more power in the Congress, received disproportionately more in aid than harder hit Louisiana.
The levee breeches were repaired on September 5, and, after seven weeks of pumping, New Orleans was declared dry. While many residents trickled back to their homes, more remained away. Entire neighborhoods in New Orleans and Mississippi remained piles of rubble one year after Katrina hit. Mayor Nagin attempted to lift the spirit of the city by conducting business as normal. In 2006 the Mardi Gras and Jazz Festival celebrations went on according to their normal schedule. Nagin also created the seventeen-member Bring New Orleans Back Commission to build excitement around rebuilding. But with one-quarter the pre-hurricane tax base, one-third the student body in the public schools, power shortages, and tens of thousands not yet returned, Katrina has left a scar that will heal slowly, if at all.
--Gregory J. Dehler
Brinkley, Douglas. The Great Deluge: Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans, and the Mississippi Gulf Coast. New York: Harper Collins, 2006.
Cooper, Christopher and Robert Block. Disaster: Hurricane Katrina and the Failure of Homeland Security. New York: Times Books, 2006.
Dyson, Michael Eric. Come Hell or High Water: Hurricane Katrina and the Color of Disaster. New York: Basic Books, 2006.
Heerden, Ivor van and Mike Bryan. The Storm: What Went Wrong During Hurricane Katrina -- The Inside Story from One Louisiana Scientist. New York: Viking, 2006.
Horne, Jed. Breach of Faith: Hurricane Katrina and the Near Death of a Great American City. New York: Random House, 2006.
Syzerhans, Douglas, ed. Federal Disaster Programs and Hurricane Katrina. New York: Nova Science Publishers, 2006.