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Hurricane Katrina, in 7 essential facts

Water spills over a levee toward New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina.
Water spills over a levee toward New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina.
AFP via Getty Images

10 years after Hurricane Katrina overran New Orleans, the city is still recovering from a disaster that was as much human-caused as natural.

Katrina, which formed on August 23, 2005, and hit the Gulf Coast of the US on August 29, was a massive storm that was likely to wreak havoc in the region regardless of how the government reacted. But the government response was so wildly incompetent that it allowed the worst of the catastrophe to continue and sometimes created entirely new, unnecessary problems.

This is the big lesson of Katrina: People will always have to deal with unavoidable natural disasters, but a poor government reaction and preparation can lead to many more deaths and untold costs — like it did in Mississippi and Louisiana, particularly New Orleans, a decade ago.

1) At least 1,800 people died due to Hurricane Katrina

With a death toll of more than 1,800, Katrina was the third-deadliest hurricane in US history after Galveston in 1900 (which killed 8,000 to 12,000 people) and Okeechobee in 1928 (which killed 2,500 to 3,000 people), according to US News and World Report. But Katrina is by far the costliest hurricane in economic terms, running up $108 billion in costs.

Much of this damage was likely unavoidable: Katrina was a huge, category 3 hurricane when it hit Louisiana and Mississippi, and it hit areas — including New Orleans — that were largely below sea level and therefore vulnerable to flooding. But many of the issues were worsened — if not caused — by a government response that was unable to deal with the storm before, during, and after it made landfall. The incompetence plagued multiple levels of government, from local police to federal agencies like FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) and the US Army Corps of Engineers.

2) The levees failed because of bad engineering, not just because Katrina was too big

A view of the Lower Ninth Ward and Industrial Canal of New Orleans near a point where a levee was breached during Hurricane Katrina.

A view of the Lower Ninth Ward and Industrial Canal of New Orleans near a point where a levee was breached during Hurricane Katrina.

Lee Celano/AFP via Getty Images

One reason Katrina and the floods it caused broke through New Orleans's levees was because the storm was too strong. But reports since the hurricane have also exposed another culprit: shoddy engineering.

More than six months after Katrina hit, the US Army Corps of Engineers released a report in which they took blame for the levees breaking, flat-out admitting that the levees were built in a disjointed fashion based on outdated data. Much of this, the report revealed, was due to a lack of funding — resulting in a flawed system of levees that was inconsistent in quality, materials, and design. Engineers also failed to account for the region's poor soil quality and sinking land, which created more gaps in barriers.

The federal government was largely culpable for this mess, since it was largely on the Corps — a federal agency — to oversee the construction of the levees after Hurricane Betsy flooded New Orleans in 1965. As the New York Times's Campbell Robertson and John Schwartz reported, a 2006 report placed some of the responsibility for the levees' failures on dysfunctional interactions between local officials and the Corps. But a new paper published in the journal Water Policy this year — and penned by one of the authors of the 2006 report — put the blame more squarely on the Corps, which allegedly made poor decisions during the construction of the levees to save money. The result was some short-term savings for taxpayers and the Corps, but ultimately a bigger disaster through Katrina.

This is just one of the many ways the federal government failed to prevent a disaster in the lead-up to Katrina. Even though there were always serious concerns about how a hurricane could destroy New Orleans, the federal agency in charge of building better levees and flood walls was at times more worried about money than about building proper protections, and relied on outdated data to build what turned out to be deeply flawed structures.

3) Katrina caused the biggest evacuation in US history, but many people couldn't afford to leave

About 1.3 million people left southeast Louisiana and 400,000 evacuated from New Orleans itself, culminating in one of the largest evacuations in US history, according to Jed Horne in the Washington Post. But as the New York Times's David Gonzalez reported as the storm battered the region, tens of thousands of people remained in the city — not necessarily by choice, but rather because they were too poor to afford a car or bus fare to leave.

It was common during and after Katrina to hear people asking why everyone didn't just leave New Orleans. But the truth is that many of them couldn't leave — as the Times reported — and the government did little to nothing to help them get out of Katrina's path before the hurricane hit.

This is one of the reasons Kanye West infamously said that "George Bush doesn't care about black people." Local, state, and federal officials were simply way too slow in helping largely poor, black populations, leaving them stranded to bear the brunt of the storm. And while New Orleans has reportedly made improvements in its evacuation plans since 2005, the inadequate response at the time of Katrina led to more deaths and pain that could have otherwise been avoided — particularly among impoverished, minority communities.

"Is this what the pioneers of the Civil Rights Movement fought to achieve, a society where many black people are as trapped and isolated by their poverty as they were by segregation laws?" Mark Naison, a white professor of African-American studies at Fordham University, wrote at the time. "If September 11 showed the power of a nation united in response to a devastating attack, Hurricane Katrina reveals the fault lines of a region and a nation rent by profound social divisions."

4) Federal officials were slow to react to local and state officials' pleas

President George W. Bush looks out the window of Air Force One as he flies over New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina ravaged the region.

President George W. Bush looks out the window of Air Force One as he flies over New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina ravaged the region.

Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images

After the response to Katrina proved to be its own kind of unmitigated disaster, the Bush administration attempted to shift some of the blame to local and state officials — particularly Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco. Some media outlets, going by information from administration officials, claimed Blanco didn't declare a state of emergency.

In fact, Horne noted in the Washington Post, Blanco declared a state of emergency on August 26 — a day before Mississippi and the White House did, and three days before the storm made landfall. And while President George W. Bush vacationed in Texas as the storm hit, Blanco pleaded for the administration to send more aid. At one point, the Louisiana National Guard asked FEMA for 700 buses — but, days later, the agency sent only 100, and it took a week to evacuate flood survivors.

This was just one of the many ways FEMA fell short even as local and state officials pleaded for help and issued warnings to federal officials. Staffed by political appointees with little to no experience in dealing with disasters, the agency bumbled its response to Katrina, causing unnecessary deaths and chaos across Louisiana and Mississippi. The horrible response would eventually help tank Bush's approval ratings, with his administration's response to Katrina consistently viewed poorly by a majority of Americans.

5) The Superdome wasn't the murderous hellhole government officials made it out to be

The New Orleans Superdome in 2014.

The New Orleans Superdome in 2014.

Mike Coppola/Getty Images

Narratives that came out of Katrina portrayed the Superdome, where 30,000 people were stranded after the storm, as lawless, depraved, and chaotic — with reports of murders, rapes, and even sniper attacks on the crowds crammed into the sports stadium.

For example, New Orleans's mayor at the time, Ray Nagin, told Oprah Winfrey horror stories of people "in that frickin' Superdome for five days watching dead bodies, watching hooligans killing people, raping people," while Eddie Compass, then the city's police chief, told of "little babies getting raped," the Los Angeles Times's Susannah Rosenblatt and James Rainey reported a month after the storm.

While the scene in the Superdome was far from a paradise, it was not the murderous hellhole that media reports and government officials made it out to be. In fact, just six people died in the Superdome — four of natural causes, one of suicide, and one of a drug overdose. No one was murdered in the stadium, according to Louisiana National Guard Colonel Thomas Beron.

Some of the blame for the sensationalist stories falls on journalists who breathlessly reported some of the outrageous claims about the situation in the Superdome. But a lot of the blame also falls on local, state, and federal officials who, already facing a lot of chaos and panic due to the impact of Katrina, echoed wild claims about the Superdome that helped foster even more chaos and panic. And this additional panic came with a real cost: In the aftermath, officials focused resources on supposedly restoring order in the Superdome — leaving fewer resources for some of the rescue and reconstruction work that was left to be done. So officials helped create unnecessary panic, and then they dedicated resources to address that panic.

6) New Orleans still hasn't recovered from Katrina

US Census stats for New Orleans 10 years after Katrina.

US Census Bureau

A decade after Hurricane Katrina, the New Orleans metro area still hasn't recovered from the storm. Although the area has grown since 2006, it holds 134,000 fewer residents, more than 39,000 fewer housing units, and nearly 2,000 fewer business establishments since Katrina hit. Again, much of this damage was likely unavoidable in the face of a storm as strong as Katrina — but the harms could have been at least mitigated by better government preparation and a stronger response, based on the many reports that have reviewed the situation since Katrina.

7) New Orleans isn't — and probably can't be — fully prepared for another Katrina

New Orleans, one year after Hurricane Katrina.

New Orleans, one year after Hurricane Katrina.

Mario Tama/Getty Images

Despite the massive damage left behind by Katrina, another storm like it could still decimate the region again.

A report from the Lens, a local news outlet in New Orleans, and Politifact found that the anti-flooding system built after Katrina couldn't handle another storm like it. The system could endure a 100-year storm — a storm with a 1 percent chance of happening on any given year — but Katrina was considered a much stronger 400-year storm. (Still, the new system is certainly much stronger than what existed before it, so it could diminish a lot of the damage that Katrina caused.)

Another report by the National Academy of Engineering and the National Research Council concluded that levees and flood walls can never be large or sturdy enough to fully protect New Orleans from another disaster similar in scope to Katrina.

In fact, this is perhaps the most lasting, dangerous public policy failure after Katrina: The report noted that the new structures built around the city give a false sense of security, leading the public to believe that they will be protected if another storm like Katrina comes. But the reality is the nature of New Orleans — mainly, its status as a city largely below sea level — will always leave it exposed to these kinds of storms and floods. Ultimately, the report concluded that voluntarily relocating people from areas exposed to floods should be considered as a viable public policy option — otherwise, the same problems may repeat themselves in the future.

This is perhaps the most disheartening fact about Katrina: 10 years later, something like it could happen again.

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