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Hurricane Katrina: Facts, Timeline, Damage & Aftermath

Instructor: Matthew Helmer

Matt is an upcoming Ph.D. graduate and archaeologist. He has taught Anthropology, Geography, and Art History at the university level.

Hurricane Katrina was one of the most destructive natural disasters in recent history. This lesson reviews what made the hurricane so devastating. The lesson also delves into what the disaster taught us about racial inequality, government inadequacy and modern-day migration.

The Big One: Arrival of Hurricane Katrina

People growing up in Louisiana have always been accustomed to hurricanes. Braving the storm was a rite of passage. Families would either move inland or hunker down to ride out the storm then come together to help each other after it passed. Hurricane Katrina brought an altogether different and apocalyptic experience which permanently changed the way we view hurricanes.

Hurricane Katrina map
Hurricane Katrina

Timeline of Events

On August 28, 2005, Hurricane Katrina became the strongest hurricane ever recorded in the Gulf of Mexico. Before it hit Louisiana it was a Category 5 hurricane with winds of 175 miles per hour. This record would be broken just a few weeks later by Hurricane Rita. People began preparing for the storm, moving inland and watching forecasts to determine where Hurricane Katrina would make landfall. Mandatory evacuations were ordered for New Orleans and surrounding areas. Officials did not, however, account for the number of people who did not have the means to evacuate the city.

The search for survivors
Hurricane Katrina fly-over
August 29storm surge

New Orleans is located on a small inlet between the Gulf of Mexico, the Mississippi River and Lake Pontchartrain in a location particularly vulnerable to high tides. The majority of the city sits below sea level. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began large levee projects in 1965 to protect the New Orleans area from flooding. Nevertheless, one theory is that most of these levees were breached on August 29. This led to flooding which was unprecedented in America's urban areas. Another theory is that only a few levees were breached from the lake and canal area which was enough to cause the destruction.

Hurricane Katrina's Destruction

Between August 29 and August 31, New Orleans resembled an apocalyptic scene. Most of the city was underwater with people stranded all over the city. America was bombarded with unbelievable images of residents trapped on rooftops and people who drowned in the streets. Some of the most graphic scenes came from the Louisiana Superdome and New Orleans Convention Center where more than 20,000 people took shelter in sweltering heat without adequate supplies. A breakdown in communication systems led to evacuations taking days. Some people resorted to looting stores for supplies. Public arenas throughout the Gulf Coast became makeshift hospitals, resembling a war zone.

By September 5, more than 40,000 National Guard troops were deployed throughout the Gulf Coast, one of their largest deployments in modern history. Impoverished areas such as the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans were some of the hardest hit and last areas to be rescued. Thousands of people were rescued by helicopters and boats. It wasn't until nearly a week after the storm that most of the remaining citizens were evacuated from New Orleans. This led to overcrowding of many shelters such as the Houston Astrodome in Texas. All totaled, more than eighteen hundred people perished in the storm. A majority of deaths were from New Orleans' impoverished African American areas, and many of the deceased were elderly.

The Aftermath: Lessons from the Storm

Hurricane Katrina displaced more than one million people, fundamentally transforming the Gulf Coast. The population of many cities like Baton Rouge doubled almost overnight and continue to deal with issues of rapid overpopulation today. While some neighborhoods in New Orleans have tried to rebuild, many neighborhoods remain largely abandoned. The largest legacy of the storm, however, was the perception of government inefficiency, racial divides and poverty.

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