Background on Hurricane Katrina


On Monday, August 29th, 2005, Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast as a Category 3 storm, with sustained winds of 125 mph and a storm surge estimated at up to 30 feet. Unfortunately, thousands weren’t able to get out of the city before the storm hit.

The evacuation

At 5:00 pm on Saturday August 27, the Mayor of New Orleans, Ray Nagin, called for a voluntary evacuation of New Orleans despite predictions from the national Hurricane Center that Katrina would become a major hurricane by the time it reached the central Gulf of Mexico.

Mandatory evacuation was ordered the following morning, but it soon became clear that not everyone could leave.

The only way out of New Orleans was by car. This presented a problem for the poor who could not afford to buy gas, those that did not own a car, the elderly, and the disabled. In fact, many people who did not evacuate reported not having a car, not having money to pay for gas, and not having money to pay for a hotel outside of the city as reasons for not leaving.

In addition, the “exit capacity” of the city is 67%, which means that if all the evacuation goes smoothly (no big traffic accidents or jams), the roads that lead outside of New Orleans will only be able to handle two-thirds of the city’s residents over a period of twelve hours. In other words, even if everyone were able to leave, the roads out of the city could not have handled them all.

By 11am on Sunday, August 28th, Hurricane Katrina had mushroomed into a Category 5 storm with winds blowing upwards of 175 miles per hour. By 5pm the National Hurricane Center described Katrina as a “potentially catastrophic” hurricane,” and warned that “some levees in the greater New Orleans area could be overtopped.”

Tens of thousands of New Orleans residents began to stream out of the city, but the carless, poor, aged and sick could not escape. On Sunday, Mayor Nagin designated the Superdome, the New Orleans Convention Center and several other locales as “refuges of last resort.”

By the time Katrina hit on the morning of August 29th, 85% of city’s population had evacuated, but 200,000 remained, 26,000 of which went to the Superdome.

Why did the levees fail?

At 8am on Monday, Mayor Nagin reported that water was flowing over one of New Orleans’s levees. By the end of the day, Katrina’s storm surge caused 53 different levee breaches in greater New Orleans, submerging 80% of the city, by 25 feet over some parts of the city.

New Orleans is surrounded by water – Lake Pontchartrain, the Mississippi River, and the nearby Gulf of Mexico. Nearly 80% of the city lies below sea level – the average is six feet below sea level but some places are as much as eight feet below. As a result, the city’s safety has long depended on one of the world’s most extensive levee systems.

Sadly, the levee system was never designed to withstand a storm of Katrina’s strength. Until the day before Katrina’s arrival, New Orleans’s 350 miles of levees were undergoing a feasibility study to examine the possibility of upgrading them to withstand a Category 4 or 5 storm.

To make matters worse, New Orleans has a bowl-like shape that prevents water from draining away, so as the levees broke and continued to allow water to flow into the city streets, no one was sure how long it would take to pump out the floodwaters once the levees were repaired.

What happened at the Superdome?

Who can forget Geraldo Rivera outside the stadium holding babies and crying about the awful way people were being treated?

Mayor Nagin’s original plan to open the Dome as a special needs shelter only changed when Katrina zeroes in on New Orleans. He opened it for all residents as a “refuge of last resort” only after Katrina’s strength grew to a Category 5 and it was advised that 200,000 people remained in the city. Eventually, 26,000 people descended on the Superdome.

By definition, a “refuge of last resort” is intended to serve only as a location to ride out a storm. City officials did their part to warn evacuees of the conditions they’d face in the Dome. The building could be without power and water pressure for days. It would be crowded and hot. Nagin even advised people to be prepared to stay for three to five days. Other than that, the city did little else in the way of preparations.

Supplies were low. The state had requested 180,000 one-liter bottles of water and 109,400 Meals Ready to Eat (MREs) to supply the Dome population, but only 43,776 MREs and 90,000 bottles of water were on hand. That was just enough to make it through Monday. The trucks of supplies that were en route to the Dome were stymied by the weather.

In the days following the hurricane, the media was flooded with stories and images of the squalid conditions in the Dome where food and water quickly ran out, the toilets stopped working and corpses lay unattended. Some even claimed that groups of young men had raped several young women and drugs were being used openly.

Outside, corpses were floating in the floodwater and lying on the city streets. These images were being broadcast around the world.

On CNN, Anderson Cooper reported he had seen a body being eaten by rats.

On Tuesday, August 30th, Mayor Nagin ordered the evacuation of the Superdome and the other refuges.  The evacuation didn’t happen until five days later. By September 6th, Mayor Ray Nagin issued an emergency declaration authorizing police and soldiers to forcibly evacuate any residents who refused to leave.

The aftermath

Katrina led to the death of 1,836 people, and over 100 people are still registered as missing. Nearly half the deaths were in people age 75 or over, those who were unable to evacuate themselves.

In the weeks after Katrina, reports of the unimaginable continued – people were seeing things they never thought they would see in America: widespread looting, starving refugees, and rotting corpses in the streets.

Katrina left many Louisiana communities dealing with the issue of oil and sewage contamination, including possible poisons released from toxic waste sites in the flood. Much of the contamination stuck around for weeks in the muck left behind by the polluted floodwaters. Key sources of contamination were two oil spills, submerged cars and machines, 2,200 facilities with underground fuel tanks, 25 major sewage-treatment plans and tens of millions of tons of solid waste. Oil, gas, chemicals, feces and many other pollutants tainted New Orleans’ water supply and the availability of safe drinking water is still in question.

Beyond New Orleans

The Gulf coast of Mississippi suffered massive damage from the impact of Hurricane Katrina: 238 people died, 67 went missing, and the area suffered billions in dollars in damages as bridges and homes collapsed, and boats and barges were washed inland. In the aftermath, all 82 counties in Mississippi were declared disaster areas for federal assistance, 47 for full assistance.

In addition to the heavy rains, Katrina caused eleven tornadoes in Mississippi which damaged trees and power lines. Reportedly, storm surges traveled as much as six miles inland in portions of the Mississippi coast. In some areas, 90% of structures within half a mile of the coast were completely destroyed. Also, more than half of the 13 casinos in the state, which were floated on barges to comply with Mississippi land-based gambling laws, were washed hundreds of yards inland by waves.

Pets and Katrina

A host of accounts have surfaced of distraught pet owners forced to abandon animals they considered part of the family. In the wake of the hurricane, thousands of survivors clinging to their pets were told by emergency workers to leave them behind. Some did, but others refused, choosing to stay with their animals despite dangerous conditions.

The situation is said to have occurred because FEMA and the U.S. Coast Guard reportedly told commanders of crews on the scene that they had the discretion to rescue animals or pass them by. In addition, the Red Cross has a long-standing national policy of not accepting animals in shelters.

Understanding Katrina
The Wall Street Journal
National Geographic
The New York Times
The Times-Picayune