Hurricane Katrina formed in the Atlantic Ocean in August 2005, reaching hurricane strength on the 23rd. As it gained and lost strength over water and land, it ranged from Category 1 all the way up to Category 5 in strength. At its Category 5 peak, it packed winds up to 175 MPH.
When Katrina was comparatively weak in strength, it passed over parts of Florida. After picking up strength in the Gulf of Mexico, it struck with considerably more force in southern Mississippi and Louisiana, and glancingly in southern Alabama and the Florida panhandle.
Though many areas were devastated, especially the Mississippi Gulf Coast, the bulk of the media attention was understandably on the city of New Orleans, not only a major population center, but a place of great historical and cultural significance to the nation.
The New Orleans levee system proved unable to handle Katrina’s storm surge. Given that most of the city lies at or below sea level (in the cemeteries, bodies are “buried” in tombs above ground, because to dig into the ground puts one almost immediately in a swamp), once the levees were breached, water rushed in, seeking the land’s lowest point. Ultimately 80% of the city was underwater, causing predictable damage to property, and more importantly human life. The nation and the world were shocked by the images of human suffering on their TV screens, and by the rumors of how the devastated population had reverted to savagery (rumors, by the way, that turned out to be more false than true).
The confirmed death toll from Katrina was 1,836. Other estimates, taking into account people missing but not confirmed dead, are closer to 2,000. 1,464 confirmed deaths occurred in New Orleans alone. Katrina is believed to have caused over $80 billion in economic damage.
The aftermath of Katrina brought suffering, action, accusations, and debate.
Much of the area hardest hit by Katrina took years to come back, and some of it still hasn’t fully recovered. New Orleans has shown a wonderful resilient spirit, but there is still a great deal of reconstructive work to be done. Many of the people who evacuated the area have never returned, and perhaps never will.
Though obviously a hurricane is a natural disaster, many people charge that unwise and corrupt human decisions augmented Katrina’s lethality, arguing that it was also in part a manmade disaster. They point to the recklessly inadequate levee system as one example. For years there had been warnings that the poor levee system left New Orleans vulnerable to catastrophic flooding, but decisions were made to ignore such concerns and do everything on the cheap.
If in this and other ways Katrina showed the dark side of human nature, it also gave rise to the bright side. As so often happens in the aftermath of a disaster, such as 9/11 four years earlier, Katrina showed that there is no shortage of compassionate people willing to help out. People donated money and necessities in great quantities, and in some cases traveled to the area to help out directly.
The environmental impact of Katrina should not be overlooked. The storm surge wiped away whole sections of coastal areas. The U.S. Geological Survey estimated that Katrina, along with Hurricane Rita which followed in September, transformed 217 square miles of land to water. This can have something of a downward spiral effect, as it is this land that provides a buffer against future hurricanes. The more Gulf coastal wetlands are lost, the more vulnerable the area is to hurricanes, which means even more erosion of land.
Many animal species lost key breeding grounds. Sixteen National Wildlife Refuges were closed after the storm.
Seven million gallons of oil leaked from 44 damaged facilities in Louisiana, further despoiling the environment.
It is no surprise that Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff described Hurricane Katrina as “probably the worst catastrophe, or set of catastrophes” in U.S. history. As the Gulf Coast continues to rebuild, it is imperative not just to remember and to mourn the dead, but to look to the future and be better prepared for when the next major hurricane strikes the area.