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What Was Hurricane Katrina?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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Hurricane Katrina was one of the strongest, most deadly, and most costly storms to make landfall in the United States, as of 2007. Almost 2,000 people died as a direct result of the hurricane, and hundreds more were missing for months after the hurricane. In addition to causing substantial damage, Hurricane Katrina also raised questions about American disaster preparedness. Some critics also felt Katrina illustrated many major social issues in the United States, primarily the large gap between African-Americans and whites.

On 23 August 2005, Hurricane Katrina formed in the Atlantic. It first struck shore in Florida, and was classified as a Category One hurricane. After veering back into the Gulf, Katrina picked up enough power to be classified as a Category Five, hitting shore on 29 August to devastate Louisiana and Mississippi. At its peak, the hurricane was accompanied by wind speeds of 175 miles per hour (280 kilometers per hour). By request, the name “Katrina” was retired from the list of available hurricane names in 2006.

Many states suffered damages from Hurricane Katrina. The damages were counted in billions of dollars, and were primarily focused in Louisiana and Mississippi. The hurricane also had severe economic impacts for the United States, as it damaged oil rigs and refineries around the Gulf. The environmental effects were also substantial. 2005 was a difficult hurricane year, with numerous strong hurricanes repeatedly battering the Southern United States.

Many news agencies around the world reported on Katrina. The bulk of their reporting was focused on New Orleans. New Orleans suffered extensive damage from Hurricane Katrina, as a result of the failure of levees built by the Army Corps of Engineers. Conditions in New Orleans were compared to those in Third World countries as rescue services desperately tried to evacuate people from the city, which was without potable water and power for days. Ironically, many of these same nations sent volunteers and financial assistance to the United States when it became evident that the nation's emergency services were overwhelmed. Some people chose to stay in the city despite evacuation orders, while others were unable to get out in time, converging on large shelters which proved inadequate to the task.

In the months and years following the hurricane, the full extent of the damage and social chaos which occurred as a result of the hurricane became apparent. Many Americans called for major reforms of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and for more general social reforms. Some people suspected that the substantially African-American and poor population of New Orleans may have suffered discrimination which led to delays in getting help. Other southern states were angered by the heavy focus on New Orleans, considering the substantial damages which they suffered as well.

Photographs and news reports from Hurricane Katrina had a powerful impact on many Americans. Volunteer organizations ranging from the Red Cross to the Humane Society of the United States descended upon the area to help victims, supported by an outpouring of donations from around the country and the world. The disaster is widely viewed among Americans as one of the worst natural disasters to occur in the United States, compounded by issues of social and economic inequality.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Historical Index researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By amypollick — On Jun 28, 2011

What has always irritated me about the Katrina aftermath is the beating the U.S. government took over it. Yes, they made some colossal mistakes, but the brunt of the blame has to fall on the lack of leadership and mistakes by the city and state governments.

Alabama has a coastline, and the year before, took a direct hit from Hurricane Ivan, which did tremendous damage, although obviously, not like Katrina.

The mayor of Mobile ordered mandatory evacuations 48 hours before landfall. Alabama Gov. Bob Riley ordered contraflow on the main interstate leading north, away from the coast, 72 hours before landfall. That meant that all the traffic for some 150 miles was all moving north in both lanes, which facilitated people being able to get out.

The mayor of New Orleans ordered mandatory evacuations only 20 hours before landfall, for a city three times the size of Mobile, when the warnings had been out for New Orleans for two days. The governor of Louisiana never ordered contraflow on I-10, or I-59, the two major interstate highways out of town.

Also, the emergency management officials had abandoned a plan put in place by a retired EMA director to commandeer all the city's buses and school buses to get the Ninth Ward evacuated by no less than 48 hours before landfall.

While the Army Corps of Engineers perhaps did not maintain the levees as well as they should have, the city of New Orleans signed its own death warrant when developers convinced city leaders to go along with draining the salt marshes and putting shopping centers on them. The salt marshes were a natural means of defense for the city, since they could absorb huge amounts of flood water. That line of defense was gone, though.

The government of New Orleans had convinced itself that, since the city survived hurricanes Audrey and Betsy, that it could survive anything. Only those hurricanes hit the city in the 1950s, when the population was much smaller and the salt marshes were still intact.

My city hosted many Katrina refugees, and the national media and the pundits never talked to them. They could tell stories about how that "laissez les bon temps roulez" attitude nearly destroyed the city. My cousin's in-laws also lived in New Orleans at the time. Her mother-in-law (a nurse) stayed for five surreal days in the Tuoro Infirmary, helping people, and she can tell some stories about the city's ineffective preparation and response to the disaster.

The upshot of it is New Orleans got caught with its pants down. The sad part is the most vulnerable citizens were the ones who paid the highest price.

By submariner — On Feb 03, 2011

@ Cougars- I agree with you cougars. Hurricane Rita and Katrina were only previews of the type of storms to come. There are different perspectives on climate change, and arguments to whether the causes are natural or human caused, but it is obvious that change is occurring. For those that argue warming is not happening because winter storms are much stronger, and snowfall is higher, a little investigation into how climate change works would reveal the fact that it makes all types of weather extreme, not just warming weather. The huge winter storm sweeping the United States, the storms that flooded Pakistan, the Storms that Flooded Australia, the onset of longer Santa Anna's on the west coast, the onset of longer monsoon seasons in the Southwest, and the increase in ferocity of typhoons and cyclones in the Pacific are all examples of this shift in climate.

By cougars — On Feb 02, 2011

When Hurricane Katrina made landfall, it was devastating. Currently in Australia, cyclone Yasi is barreling down on the already flood soaked Queensland State. I was ready stories as it made landfall in a town of over 150,000 and storm surges were already reported at 6.5 feet. Roofs of houses were being ripped off, and winds were slamming the coast and houses at over 185 miles per hour. The center of the storm is about three hundred miles across, and the entire cyclone looks as if it could blanket a quarter of the continent.

I feel for the people down under, and I hope that very few are affected from this storm. So far, it is another example of how climate change is wreaking havoc on weather patterns and producing more and more deadly storms.

By anon62356 — On Jan 26, 2010

Hurricane katrina was an extreme weather event but the disaster caused was not natural. It was a terrorist attack.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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