Heartbreaker, life taker, game changer: Hurricane Katrina
Early on the morning of Aug. 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina roared ashore in Plaquemines Parish as a Category 3 storm. Rain poured down until midafternoon, and wind as high as 140 mph was so intense that it blew the rain sideways and peeled parts of the roof off the Superdome. While the storm itself was bad enough, the real horror of Katrina came when the levees failed, putting 80 percent of the city under water and forcing people in low-lying areas to stand on the roofs of their houses as water lapped at the eaves. At least 1,245 people perished, and total property damage was estimated at $108 billion.
Although much of the New Orleans area seems to have recovered from the storm’s ravages, broad swaths of the Lower 9th Ward — a neighborhood where block after block of homes once stood before being washed away by floodwaters — remain vacant and overgrown nearly 12 years after Katrina’s assault. Two massive buildings that sustained heavy damage — Charity Hospital and Municipal Auditorium — are still closed as officials try to determine their future and how to pay for repairs.
- Katrina is ranked as the third most intense hurricane to strike the United States, following 1969’s Hurricane Camille and a 1935 storm that hit before hurricanes were named.
- Studies of the levee failures concluded that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which designed and built the levees, was responsible for their failures, mainly because short steel pilings were used to save money. However, U.S. District Judge Stanwood Duval ruled that the Corps could not be held responsible because of the principle of sovereign immunity, which immunizes government agencies from liability.
- A 2015 study in the journal of the World Water Council concluded that the flooding could have been prevented if the Corps had retained an external review board to double-check its flood-wall designs.
- Many private agencies that relied on bus companies and ambulance services for evacuation couldn’t take their charges to safety because they had waited too long. Buses were available, but there weren’t enough drivers for them because Gov. Kathleen Blanco didn’t sign an emergency waiver to let any licensed drivers behind the wheel.
- More than 1 million local residents were scattered around the United States in what is considered the biggest diaspora in U.S. history.
- In the days after the storm, the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center became an outpost of misery for thousands of people whose homes had been destroyed and who were waiting in the oppressive combination of heat and humidity for food, water and medical help.
- President George W. Bush was criticized for his administration’s laggard response. When he came to New Orleans 17 days after the storm and addressed the nation from Jackson Square, the lights illuminating the scene were powered by generators because electricity hadn’t yet been restored.
- In what may seem counterintuitive, parts of New Orleans closest to the Mississippi River, including the French Quarter and Uptown, escaped flooding because they were higher than the rest of the city, the result of thousands of years of soil that the river had deposited along its banks.
- In the first days after the storm, NOLA.com, the website of The Times-Picayune, became a way for rescuers to find out what was going on and for families to learn their relatives’ whereabouts. For its work, The Times-Picayune won the Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News Reporting as well as a George Polk Award. It also shared the Pulitzer for Public Service with The Sun-Herald of Biloxi, Miss.
- Katrina’s destruction prompted thousands of volunteers to come to New Orleans to help the city rebuild, prompting one observer to say, “We live surrounded by angels.”
In terms of physical force and psychological impact, Katrina was the most destructive hurricane ever to hit New Orleans, and it has become the yardstick by which other storms are judged. The storm’s impact remains, most often in the form of anxiety whenever a tropical wave kicks up in the Atlantic. Many conversations among longtime New Orleanians inevitably turn to Katrina. Whenever someone says, “the storm,” everybody knows exactly what storm that person is talking about.