Twelve years ago today in the early hours of the morning, Hurricane Katrina made landfall, hitting the Gulf Coast as a Category 3 hurricane, bringing sustained winds of 100–140 miles per hour and stretching 400 miles wide.
Although the storm itself inflicted a great deal of damage, its aftermath was devastating when levee breaches brought substantial flooding. In Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, hundreds of thousands were displaced and damages were estimated to be greater than $100 billion.
Hurricane Katrina started as a tropical depression forming over the Bahamas on August 23, 2005. Soon, meteorologists were warning those in the Gulf Coast states that a major storm was making its way toward them. Evacuations across the region were underway by August 28 as the National Weather Service predicted that the storm would leave the area uninhabitable for weeks or longer.
The average elevation of New Orleans is six feet below sea level and the city surrounded by water, making it naturally vulnerable to flooding. The Army Corps of Engineers had built a system of levees and seawalls in the city over the course of the 20th century to prevent flooding.
While the levees along the Mississippi River were formidable, the ones built to protect the city’s east and west from rising waters from Lake Pontchartrain, Lake Borgne and the marshes were less sturdy. Prior to the storm, officials worried a surge could rise above the levees, causing short-term flooding, however no one thought the levees would collapse. Neighborhoods below sea level, where many of the city’s poorest and most vulnerable people, were at great risk for flooding.
The day before Katrina hit, Mayor Ray Nagin issued New Orleans’ very first mandatory evacuation order and declared the Superdome stadium, located on high ground near downtown, as a “shelter of last resort” for people unable to leave the city. About 80 percent of the city’s population had evacuated by nightfall, but about 10,000 sought shelter in the Superdome. Still, tens of thousands chose to ride out the storm at home.
The hurricane struck the city early Monday morning, August 29. Hours of heavy rain followed by the storm surge overwhelmed many of the city’s levees and drainage canals, flooding low-lying areas like the Ninth Ward and St. Bernard Parish by 9:00 a.m. Eventually, almost 80 percent of the city was, to some degree, under water. Many residents climbed to their attics and rooftops for safety.
It was also nearly impossible to leave New Orleans. Poor people in particular were stuck. Some tried to leave the city by walking over the Crescent City Connector Bridge to a nearby suburb, but they were forced to return to the city by police officers armed with shotguns.
The Coast Guard rescued some 34,000 people in New Orleans. Citizens also played a large part in helping others by commandeering boats, offering food and shelter, and doing whatever else they could to help their neighbors.
In the end, Hurricane Katrina killed nearly 2,000 people, affected some 90,000 square miles and forced hundreds of thousands to evacuate and scatter far and wide. Twelve years later, after recovery and rebuilding along the Gulf Coast, many have returned to life as usual. Others still are rebuilding and recovering.
Many painful lessons were learned during Katrina. The federal government was unprepared for the disaster and was widely criticized for being slow to meet the needs of those affected. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) took days setting up operations in New Orleans, but did not have a suitable plan of action. City leaders had no real plan leaving tens of thousands desperate for food, water and shelter.
President George W. Bush appeared disconnected from the facts on the ground in New Orleans and other areas affected. He famously praised his FEMA chief Michael D. Brown, for doing “a heck of a job” during a tour of Katrina destruction while thousands had no food or water.
Hurricanes flooded New Orleans six times over the 20th Century–in 1915, 1940, 1947, 1965, 1969 and 2005. As Houston struggles with tragic massive flooding, memories of Hurricane Katrina loom large.