Katrina the Catastrophe and the Aftermath

When Hurricane Katrina made landfall on Monday, August 29, 2005 it was classified as a category 3 storm. What had started out just a few days earlier as posing very little threat to Louisiana quickly grew into one of the most destructive forces ever experienced.

On Friday morning, after wreaking havoc on parts of Florida, the storm had reentered the Gulf of Mexico and been downgraded to a category one. By the airing of the evening news Louisiana residents were keeping track of the latest developments with the westward moving storm, but there was still no major cause for concern.

At 10:00 o’clock Friday night Hurricane Katrina had grown significantly in size and strength and seemed to be on a path that would make direct impact with the state. Voluntary evacuations were soon issued and by 7:00 o’clock Central time on Sunday morning Katrina had grown into a raging category 5 storm. Warnings were in effect along the Gulf Coast from Louisiana to as far east as the Alabama/Florida border.

Even those persons who would not normally have evacuated their homes during a hurricane now chose to pack up and leave in areas where mandatory evacuations had been issued. Those who chose to stay behind could not have imagined what lay ahead for them.

At 6:00 Monday morning Hurricane Katrina, then a category 4 storm, was approximately seventy miles south-southeast of the city of New Orleans, moving to the north at about 15 mph. The National Hurricane Center’s advisory gave wind strength at nearly 145 mph, with the storm extending out 120 miles from the eye (storm center), with tropical storm conditions being experienced as far as 230 miles from the eye.

By 8:00 am some areas of New Orleans had started to experience flooding and there was extensive property damage along the Gulf Coast. Within hours 80% of New Orleans was submerged by the time the flood waters had leveled off with Lake Pontchartrain. In some instances water was up over the roof line of homes and many residents who had stayed behind were now trapped in their attics or on their roofs in need of rescue, while thousands of others had perished.

Fortunately for some the experience had not been as severe. For those residents privileged enough to have been on “high ground,” the storm had been little more than a major wind event. Some even still had running water and telephone service up until two days after the storm.

With the prospect of it being weeks before the flood water could be pumped out of the city, and with only one passable road out of town, those who were able started to make their exodus. People who were unable to leave on their own were stuck in the heat with little, if any, supplies first at the Superdome, which had been utilized as a “shelter of last resort” and later at the convention center before being bused out of state.

Two weeks later, just as Mayor C. Ray Nagin and city officials announced they would reopen parts of the city to allow people back in, along came Hurricane Rita. Those who had been able to return to areas on the west bank of the Mississippi River were not inclined to evacuate again and repeat what they had just experienced with Katrina.

The impending arrival of Rita, which would also reach category 5 status, set things back considerably in New Orleans and caused even further damage to the central Gulf Coast area. With the help of technology, those who had been displaced by the storms were able to see satellite images of their homes and neighborhoods.

For many, the water lines were up over their rooftops. For at least one woman, her double shotgun house had split down the middle and one side had been carried into the street by the storm surge. For still others, what the storm did not damage, the looters helped themselves to.

Once residents were finally allowed to return to New Orleans, and infrastructure began to be restored in areas which had remained dry, everyone lived under a citywide curfew of 8:00 pm, which was strictly enforced by the local police department with assistance from the National Guard.

In some parts of town such, as the area dubbed the “sliver by the river,” (so named because it was on high ground and had remained flood free), things almost seemed “normal,” but as residents began to drive east they would see the water lines and empty flood damaged properties that had been devastated by the storm.

Those living in Orleans parish had to go to nearby Jefferson to buy groceries. Some areas were able to see the return of their mail service, while other residents had to go to a designated post office to collect their mail. Almost everyone in town had had to sit their refrigerator out on the curb. The Red Cross distributed ice and MREs along with other supplies at locations across town.

Within a few weeks, garbage collection was restored and within a few weeks of that, residents began to see their daily newspaper on the front lawn again. It would take a little longer for telephone service to begin to be restored as well as for supermarkets to reopen (with very limited hours).

Businesses desperate for employees were offering prime wages. Even fast food restaurants were offering $10 an hour as well as signing bonuses. There was a housing shortage and FEMA trailers began to litter what was left of the landscape. The curfew was extended to 2:00 am and then was lifted altogether in December.

In the months following people began to put their lives back together, or at least a semblance of their lives pre-K. Schools reopened and more and more people were able to return home, though some were forced to live in different areas than where they had previously resided. Living in other neighborhoods across town was just one of many adjustments that had come to a city that seemed historically resistant to change up to that point in time.

By the first anniversary of the storm things were hopeful, and there was still plenty of opportunity to go around for those in a position (and of the right mind) to seize the day. The impending arrival of Hurricane Gustav in 2008 would be the city’s first real test of the new flood protection measures, evacuation procedures and the ability to rebound quickly after a storm and restore infrastructure.

Gustav’s appearance was mild in comparison to Katrina, and the flood protection held. Most areas were restored to electricity within a few days and the rest of the season passed without a major weather incident. The 2009 Hurricane season was a quiet one as has been the beginning of the 2010 season. As of August 1, there have been only two named storms that were upgraded to hurricanes and neither of which made landfall in the United States.

Five years after Katrina volunteerism continues to be a significant factor in rebuilding homes and businesses and restoring livelihoods. Some people are still just returning home for the first time since the storm to work on their homes. Many structures stand empty and untouched, but life goes on as it must in a place where every aspect of living is celebrated to the fullest.