Why the new Orleans Levees Failed during Hurricane Katrina

In late August and early September of 2005, Hurricane Katrina ripped through the Gulf Coast leaving complete devastation in its wake. The Category 3 hurricane is one of the deadliest and costliest storms ever to hit the United States. A major cause of the damage and loss of life in the city of New Orleans was the flooding that came as a result of every levee in the city being breached and every flood wall failing. So it seems that most of the damage came not from the storm itself but from major errors in the city’s planning process. The city was never designed to withstand such a ferocious storm.

Initial reports indicated that the reason for the severe flooding in the city of New Orleans was the sheer force of the storm itself. However, further investigation by both the Washington Post and the New York Times revealed that the storm may not have been as powerful as the authorities were trying to have the public believe. The flood walls of the city were discovered to have been so poorly designed and constructed that they never stood a chance against a storm of that magnitude. Human error and not Mother Nature had been responsible for the catastrophic damage to the city and the horrific loss of life.

Reports that surfaced in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina indicated that the government always knew that something like this could happen. Though government officials claimed that the levee system was designed to protect the city from storms up to a Category 3 and Katrina was a Category 4, others claimed that by the time Katrina hit New Orleans, it had downgraded to a Category 3 storm.

The levees of New Orleans were designed by the Army Corps of Engineers and it would appear that the designs were flawed from the get go. The system was designed without the proper understanding of the types of storms that the area might be vulnerable to and the type of damage that such a storm might cause. The levees were never designed to withstand the type of force that came bearing down on the Gulf Coast with Hurricane Katrina.

Like most things, the designs were implemented with the almighty “bottom line” in mind. When what we should have been doing was building a levee system that could withstand whatever Mother Nature might throw at us no matter what the cost, we tried to cut corners. And ultimately, what a terrible price we had to pay.


Why the levees broke. The New York Times. September 23, 2005.

Spike Lee’s When the Levees Broke: Bitter Truth About the Crimes in New Orleans. August 27, 2006.