Hurricane Katrina

Early in the morning on August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast of the United States. When the storm made landfall, it had a Category 3 rating. The storm itself did a great deal of damage, but its aftermath was catastrophic. Levee breaches led to massive flooding, and many people charged that the federal government was slow to meet the needs of the people affected by the storm. Hundreds of thousands of people in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama were displaced from their homes, and experts estimate that Katrina caused more than $100 billion in damage.


The tropical depression that became Hurricane Katrina formed over the Bahamas on August 23, 2005, and meteorologists soon warned people in the Gulf Coast states that a major storm was on its way. By August 28, evacuations were underway across the region.

New Orleans was at particular risk. Though about half the city actually lies above sea level, its average elevation is about six feet below sea level–and it is completely surrounded by water. Over the course of the 20th century, the Army Corps of Engineers had built a system of levees and seawalls to keep the city from flooding. The levees along the Mississippi River were strong and sturdy, but the ones built to hold back the lakes and swamps to the city’s east and west were much less reliable. Before the storm, officials worried that the storm surge could overrun the levees and cause short-term flooding, but no one predicted the levees might collapse. Neighborhoods that sat below sea level, many of which housed the city’s poorest and most vulnerable people, were at great risk of flooding.


By the time Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans early on August 29, it had already been raining heavily for hours. The storm surge overwhelmed many of the city’s unstable levees and drainage canals. Water seeped through the soil underneath some levees and swept others away altogether. Eventually, nearly 80 percent of the city was under some quantity of water.


Many people acted heroically in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Yet the government seemed unprepared for the disaster. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) took days to set up in New Orleans. Even President Bush seemed unaware of just how bad things were in New Orleans and elsewhere: how many people were stranded; how many homes and businesses had been damaged; how much food, water, and aid was needed. People were “getting absolutely desperate.”

The desperation was most concentrated in New Orleans. Before the storm, the city’s population was mostly black (about 67 percent); moreover, nearly 30 percent of its people lived in poverty. Katrina left many of New Orleans’s poorest citizens even more vulnerable than they had been before the storm.

In all, Hurricane Katrina killed nearly 2,000 people and affected some 90,000 square miles of the United States. Hundreds of thousands of evacuees scattered. Today, after years of recovery and rebuilding efforts, people along the Gulf Coast have made great strides in returning to life as usual even as they continue to rebuild.

Source: Hurricane Katrina
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