It was the storm long feared in a city situated on the vulnerable Gulf Coast, with many areas built below sea level. Making landfall on August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans with enormous force.
The city had faced deadly storms previously, including Hurricane Betsy in 1965, which caused extensive flooding and killed dozens of residents. But sinking land and coastal erosion, which lessened the protection provided by the city's levees, made New Orleans more vulnerable in 2005. "There's no doubt about it," said one levee manager, quoted in the New Orleans Times-Picayune in 2002. "The biggest factor in hurricane risk is land loss." That story predicted: "It's only a matter of time before South Louisiana takes a direct hit from a major hurricane." Three years later, though the direct hit was to the Mississippi Gulf Coast, the time had come.
As Katrina surged toward New Orleans, local and federal officials commented on preparedness for the storm. "This is a threat that we've never faced before," said Mayor Ray Nagin of New Orleans, who declared a state of emergency, Sunday, August 28, and ordered a mandatory evacuation of the city. "If we galvanize and gather around each other, I'm sure we will get through this." Added President George W. Bush: "We'll do everything in our power to help the people and communities affected by this storm."
The category four storm that hit the city on August 29 breached the 17th Street Canal levee, causing floodwater to course through many New Orleans neighborhoods. The failure of other levees would leave about 80 percent of the city submerged. Despite the evacuation order, hundreds of thousand of people remained in the metropolitan area. Thousands of them took shelter in the New Orleans Superdome but were stranded there for days without adequate food or hygiene. Meanwhile, reports emerged of crime and looting as well as residents awaiting rescue from their flooded homes, leading to complaints about the response of emergency management officials to the disaster.
Race and Poverty
The hurricane destroyed some grand houses in New Orleans and devastated some of the poorer and predominantly minority areas of the city, such as the Lower Ninth Ward. In a city with a majority black population, most of the televised faces of the hurricane victims were black. Commentators, including Democratic Party chairman Howard Dean and the Rev. Jesse Jackson, contended that race played a role in a slow federal response to the disaster. Others pointed to poverty as an overriding factor in residents' inability to escape the storm damage. "Poor people, disproportionately African Americans, Hispanics, Asian Americans ... have little capacity to get away from bad things," said Rep. Melvin L. Watt of North Carolina, chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus.
By the first anniversary of the storm, some things had returned to a semblance of normalcy. New Orleans continued its tradition of a Mardi Gras celebration the year after Katrina. Businesses reopened, particularly in areas popular with tourists. And music was again heard in a city famed for jazz. But the effect of the losses in New Orleans were overwhelming. The hurricane caused the deaths of more than 1,400 Louisiana residents, most from New Orleans. It flooded 140 square miles of the city and damaged or destroyed 160,000 homes in the area. A year later portions of the city remained blighted and about 240,000 New Orleans residents were still displaced.