In the early morning hours on August 29th, 2005, Hurricane Katrina made landfall on the Gulf Coast of United States. Initially, Katrina had a Category 3 rating according to the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale and with that came heavy winds that reached 100-140 miles per hour that spanned an area of 400 miles. Even though the storm itself inflicted severe damage, the aftermath was even more devastating. Levee breaches resulted in massive widespread flooding and many people accused the federal government of a slow response in the aftermath of hurricane Katrina. Nearly 2000 people lost their lives, hundreds of thousands of people in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama were displaced from their homes and damages caused by the storm were estimated to be more then $100 billion.
HURRICANE KATRINA: BEFORE THE STORM
Initially, Hurricane Katrina originated over the Bahamas on August 23rd, 2005 as a tropical depression. Meteorologists were then able to make calculated predictions on the path of the storm and send out warnings to the Gulf Coast states about a possible major storm approaching. By August 28th, mass evacuations were taking place across the Gulf States. That same day, the National Weather Service made the hypothesis that in the aftermath of the storm, “most of the [Gulf Coast] area will be uninhabitable for weeks…perhaps longer.”
Particularly vulnerable was New Orleans. Approximately only half of the city resides above sea level. The city has an average elevation of six feet below seal level and the whole of New Orleans is surrounded by water. Over the decades during the 20th century, the Army Corps of Engineers had devised a system of levees and seawalls to protect the city from floods. Although the levees built along the Mississippi River were fortified and stable, the levees built along Lake Pontchartrain, Lake Borgne and the swamps and marshes along the city’s east and west were much more susceptible to being breached. Even prior to the storm, officials were concerned that those levees, “jerry-built atop sandy, porous, erodible soil” would not hold up against the strength of a storm like the predictions made about Katrina. The parts of the city that was below sea level, was comprised of the poorest and most vulnerable and was also in most danger of flooding. Prior to Katrina making landfall, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin ordered the first-ever mandatory evacuation order of the city.
The Mayor also designated the Superdome, a stadium situated on a higher elevation near the downtown core, would act as a “shelter of last resort” for those unable to evacuate from the city. There were larger numbers of people with 112,000 in New Orleans and 500,000 in neighbouring regions who were unable to evacuate since they did not have access to a vehicle. As night came, approximately 80 percent of New Orleans was evacuated while 10,000 took cover in the Superdome shelter and tens of thousands of others chose to ride out the storm in their homes.
HURRICANE KATRINA: STORM AND FLOODING
Prior to Hurricane Katrina striking New Orleans in the early hours on Monday, August 29th, heavy rains were already hitting the city for hours. As the storm surge “as high as 9 meters in some places” hit, it overtook the city’s weak levees, as well as the drainage canals. Water was able to saturate the soft soil underneath some of the levees and usurp them while others were swept away altogether. As 9 a.m. came around, such low elevation areas like St. Bernard Parish and the Ninth Ward were completely flooded to the point that people had to seek safety on rooftops due to the high waters. By the end of the storm, nearly 80 percent of the city was under water.
HURRICANE KATRINA: THE AFTERMATH
Many people responded bravely in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. In New Orleans alone, the Coast Guard rescued 34,000 people as well many ordinary people came to the aid of neighbors in need by offering food, shelter, boats for rescues and whatever else the could to help. Despite the great local response to the disaster, it seems the federal government was not prepared to deal with the magnitude of such a natural disaster. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) took long to begin operations in New Orleans and they also did not have a clear plan for action. Officials along with President George W. Bush were uninformed about the gravity of the situation in the aftermath of Katrina was both in New Orleans and surrounding regions. They were uninformed about how many people were missing or in need or rescue, how many homes and businesses were destroyed and how much aid including food and water was needed to adequately respond to the disaster. Hurricane Katrina had left behind what one reporter referred to as a “total disaster zone” that saw people “getting absolutely desperate”. Many people had nowhere to turn to or nowhere to go. The Superdome in New Orleans was under stocked with supplies yet officials were forced to accept another 15,000 refugees that had no where to go on Monday prior to closing the doors. There was no real plan in place by officials to aid anyone else.
Tens of thousands of people in need of food, water and shelter broke into the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center Complex but found nothing. At the same time, it was practically impossible to leave New Orleans especially the poor who had no access to vehicles and nowhere to go. Some tried to find help by walking over the Crescent City Connector bridge to the nearby Gretna but met police officers with shotguns who forced them to turn back. Katrina devastated vast areas of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama but the epicenter of the devastation was centered in New Orleans. Prior to the storm, the city was comprised mostly of African Americans with 67% of the population and almost 30% of the population lived in poverty. Hurricane Katrina magnified these conditions, and had left the poorest citizens of New Orleans in an extremely vulnerable, dire situation, even worse then before the storm.
Overall, Hurricane Katrina caused catastrophic damage, killing almost 2,000 people and impacting around 90,000 square miles of the United States. Hundreds of thousands of people were displaced throughout the region, away from their homes. Today, as we make 10 year anniversary of one of the most tragic natural disasters in United States, and after many years of recovery and rebuilding, people in the Gulf States affected by Katrina have remained resilient and unphased and have made great strides to return to normal life as they continue to rebuild and restore their livelihoods and cities. (history.com staff, 2009)