THIS WEEK IN HISTORY: AUGUST 29, 2005

Hurricane Katrina Devastates New Orleans

hurricane-katrinaIn late August 2005 Hurricane Katrina caused major damage in Alabama, Florida, Mississippi, and Louisiana. There is no official death toll for Katrina, but it is known that more than 1,800 people lost their lives and in excess of 700 individuals were still listed as missing in 2011. With close to a million refugees, Hurricane Katrina was the greatest displacement of American citizens since the Dust Bowl era.

Of all the cities impacted by this category five hurricane, New Orleans, Louisiana, saw the most extensive devastation. Although New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin had imposed a mandatory evacuation of the city several days before Katrina hit, the city lacked resources to assist those who were too old, infirm, or poor to leave on their own. An estimated 20 percent of the population of New Orleans remained in the city when the hurricane made landfall on Monday, August 29, 2005. Makeshift shelters were set up in the city’s Su-perdome and Convention Center, but these became overcrowded, unsanitary, and unsafe as conditions worsened.

Shortly after the hurricane hit the city, waves on the Mississippi River were reported up to 40 feet high and levees faltered, flooding water into New Orleans. Over the next two days, floodwaters continued to rise, covering 80 percent of the city. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services secretary Michael O. Leavitt declared a public health emergency in the four states affected by the storm. The U.S. National Guard was deployed to help with rescue and evacuation, but some of these troops, fresh from Iraq and Afghani-stan, were criticized for treating evacuees as if they were hostile combatants rather than victims. Exacerbating the situation was the mass looting in the streets and gang violence erupting in and around the Superdome and Convention Center, which forced police and troops to focus on damage control instead of search and rescue. On the September 4, 2005, police shot and killed four people on Danziger Bridge. Initially, the police officers claimed that they were defending themselves from armed civilians; however, an in-vestigation revealed that the officers fired without cause and that the department attempted to cover up the murders by providing false statements and fabricating evidence. In 2011 the five New Orleans police officers were found guilty of a variety of charges, in-cluding deprivation of rights under color of law, conspiracy, counts of obstruction of justice, and civil rights conspiracy.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), headed by Mike Brown, was criticized by victims and media alike for its in-adequate and unequal response to the crisis. Proof surfaced that FEMA knew years ahead of time that the New Orleans levees could not withstand anything above a category three hurricane. It was evident days before Katrina hit the Gulf Coast that the hurri-cane would surpass that level. Jefferson Parish president Aaron Broussard commented, “We have been abandoned by our own country. The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina will go down as one of the worst abandonments of Americans on American soil ever in U.S. history.”

Brown eventually stepped down from his position, leaving Congress and the president to investigate how this situation spiraled so far out of control. President George W. Bush received much scrutiny for vacationing at his Texas ranch through August 30, when he was aware of the impending hurricane. In a televised news conference, Bush gave the following explanation: “Katrina exposed serious problems in our response capability at all levels of government, and to the extent the federal government didn’t fully do its job right, I take responsibility.” This failure on the government’s part, to respond in an equal and timely manner to the Hurricane Katrina disaster, left many Americans questioning their leaders’ ability to handle a national crisis.

Reconstruction and repopulation of New Orleans has been gradual, and the population has yet to recover. It has been estimated that the city’s population has regained approximately 70 percent of its pre-storm population, sitting at 363,000 of the 455,155 residents in 2005; however, much of the population growth occurred in areas that were not decimated by the flooding. Once ranked the twenty-sixth largest city, New Orleans ranked forty-sixth in 2010. The storm effectively reshaped the city, leading to a wealthier and less diverse population. The 2010 census figures show that there were approximately 24,000 fewer white residents and 118,000 fewer black residents than the last census, while the Hispanic population increased by nearly 65 percent. Part of the disparity can be attrib-uted to people relocating to the city for construction jobs, but many of the original residents may never return.

Although Mississippi was also devastated by the hurricane, leading to the entire state being declared a disaster area, Katrina’s his-torical and cultural impact is intricately linked with New Orleans. Far beyond its human costs, it revealed the staggering inadequacies of government agencies to respond to natural disasters as well as the racial and class stratification that exists in many American cities.

Horton, Ron. “Hurricane Katrina.” St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture. Ed. Thomas Riggs. 2nd ed. Vol. 2. Detroit: St. James Press, 2013. 739-740. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web.


Learn more about Hurricane Katrina »

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