Hurricane Katrina is one of the worst storms to have hit the Eastern coast of the United States leading to massive loss of life, destruction of property, and economic losses. There were numerous factors that contributed to the disaster being the worst in history including the physical and human geography as well as social factors such as poverty and gender marginalization. Many critics have also lamented the government’s failure to plan beforehand as well as the poor coordination efforts set in motion for emergency relief. This paper explores the issue further and also details the meteorological conditions that led to the disaster as well as the disaster’s effects on the local people that Hurricane Katrina’s destruction could have been mitigated with proper planning.
Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast on the morning of August 29, 2005, while packing 145-mile-an- hour winds as it landed (Treaster & Zernike, 2005). The hurricane left parts of the city below sea level and left over a million people homeless. Some of the worst hit parts were Eastern New Orleans and much of this can be blamed on the physical and human geography of the city.
New Orleans lies on the Gulf Coast, an area whose population has increased steadily over the last few decades. According to 2003 estimates, about 150 million Americans reside in this area, making it the fourth most populated coastal region after the Northeast, the Pacific, and the Great Lakes Regions (Cutter & Gall, 2006). As of 2005, New Orleans had a population of half a million people, with 67% of these being African Americans. The city lies below sea level and is unprotected from the coast and hence prone to flooding with city officials predicting that the historic French Quarter would come under 18 or 20 feet of water (Treaster & Zernike, 2005).
Besides the geographical and human variables which made the disaster unavoidable, human activities in past years leading to unprecedented global warming led to an escalation of the hurricane. The hurricane began as a tropical depression in the Southern Bahamas on August 23 but conducive weather conditions allowed it to develop into a major hurricane by August 26 (Cutter & Gall, 2006). These conditions included its interaction with an upper-level anticyclone over the Gulf of Mexico and warm sea-surface temperatures linked to global warming.
The science on global warming causing extreme weather conditions such as Hurricane Katrina is still debated but there is a connection. There is aconsensus in the scientific community that human activities have contributed to a warming of the earth, an occurrence that leads to warmer sea surface temperatures (Dutzik & Willcox, 2009). The general trend is that an upsurge in hurricane strength is correlated with warmer sea surface temperatures and i9n the case of Katrina, this was observed in the Gulf of Mexico between August 23 and 26. Research has also shown that extreme weather conditions have increased in both frequency and intensity over the last few decades with the number of Category 4 and 5 hurricanes in the Atlantic increasing since 1980.Global warming is expected to drive changes in the frequency, timing, location, and severity of these extreme events in future. Luckily for the people of New Orleans, Katrina had weakened from a category 5 to a strong Category 3 before making landfall on August 29.
Despite having weakened in magnitude and intensity, Katrina still packed enough power to lay havoc to an area of about 90,000 square miles. Massive flooding occurred on the Louisiana coast with 118 square miles of wetlands and drylands being converted into open water. The water filled the lakes and canals surrounding New Orleans and these waters poured into the city, flooding at least 80 percent of it with water 10 feet deep in some locations. The worst hit area was St. Bernard Parish where more than 40,000 homes were flooded.
These waters caused the deaths of 1300 people, with 1,000 of these fatalities having occurred in Louisiana alone. More than a million people were displaced, with most either going to shelters or living with relatives. There was also a 90% destruction of essential utility networks such as water, communications, and energy with power outages affecting over 1.3 million people in the Florida coast (Cutter & Gall, 2006).
Besides the physical damage to the city, the economic damages were just as severe. Katrina is expected to have caused over $100 billion in monetary losses and $34 billion in insured losses. 95,000 jobs were lost during the first 10 months after the hurricane accounting for approximately $2.9 billion. 76% of this amount or $2.2 billion was related to the private sector (Dolfman, Wasser, & Bergman, 2007). Educational institutions were also temporarily closed as did many hospitals which became flooded. In the immediate aftermath of the hurricane tens of thousands of people were evacuated to other parts of the nation but even after the hurricane had subsided the city continued bleeding people, losing about 30% of its population over a period of 10 years after the hurricane.
As earlier stated, Louisiana had the most deaths in the Gulf and this can be attributed to other factors such as poverty differences among racial and ethnic groups. 67% of the New Orleans population at the time was comprised of African-Americans and still 25% of the population lived below the poverty line. At the time, New Orleans was ranked among the most socially vulnerable in the nation with Orleans Parish having ranked in the top 97th percentile of social vulnerability for almost four decades (Cutter & Gall, 2006). Even when compared to other counties affected by the hurricane, New Orleans still ranked highly and this is evidenced by 75% of African American residents suffering damage in New Orleans as compared to 15% of African Americans in the Biloxi-Gulfport metropolitan area.
Poverty was not the only issue at play as gender and social decline also prevailed. As an example, the most affected homes were those headed by single mothers. Other factors opined to have contributed to the scale of devastation in New Orleans include segregation, neighborhood decline, socioeconomic deprivation, and marginalization of the poor even by the emergency management community.
Besides the direct destruction caused by the hurricane, a failure by the emergency management community to coordinate efforts properly also contributed chiefly to the scale of destruction. Officials both at thestate and national levels had received adequate, extensive, and fairly accurate warning well in advance of the landfall including the projected path, impact area, storm surge, and potential consequences. Responders, however, failed to convert this information into appropriate action based on the level of the looming disaster. To start with, both the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) did not avail the necessary resources to manage the resources (Moynihan, 2009). While FEMA was underfunded, the DHS did not consider Katrina as a matter of national significance and responded to it as just another natural disaster.
All disaster relief efforts are local, and hence action must begin there, but this was not the case in New Orleans. It had been pointed out to local officials that the levees would be overtopped leading to widespread flooding throughout the city. The officials, however, had only ordered voluntary evacuations and it was not until the morning of 28 August that New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin ordered mandatory evacuations of people. The state’s evacuation plan, however, mandates an evacuation period of at least 30 hours and bearing in mind that a majority of the people could not afford a car, most of these late evacuees opted to hide in shelters (Cutter & Gall, 2006).
The inertia in response was translated to the national level where even after being informed of the levee breaches, the DHS officials initially treated the reports skeptically. There was also a pull factor whereby federal responders waited for specific requests from state and local officials before acting. To further exacerbate the situation, there was no central command leading to confusion about responsibilities that led to further lag. Coordination problems can also be seen in the way federal and state officials incorporated non-governmental organizations into the response network. There was, for example, serious coordination challenges between the Red Cross and FEMA even though the Red Cross has traditionally provided vital support in such coordination efforts.
There are many lessons to learn from the turmoil of hurricane Katrina, chief among them being the necessity of establishing a central command for such disaster management efforts way before the occurrence of an event. Another lesson is that state departments need to be well-funded and be availed the resources so as to make informed decisions and react to situations proactively. The government also needs to find a way to seamlessly incorporate voluntary actors into disaster relief efforts for the benefit of victims. It is also wise to recognize how our everyday actions contribute to extreme events such as Katrina and take remedial actions of reducing pollution. Hurricane Katrina remains part of our history, but it is what we do with its lessons that will determine the future of our nation.
Cutter, S. L., & Gall, M. (2006). Chapter 27: Hurricane Katrina: A failure of planning or a planned failure? In C. Felgenteff, & T. Glade, Naturrisiken und Sozialkatastrophen (pp. 1-20). Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina.
Dolfman, M. L., Wasser, S. F., & Bergman, B. (2007). The effects of Hurricane Katrina on the New Orleans economy. Monthly Labor Review.
Dutzik, T., & Willcox, N. (2009). Global warming and extreme weather: The science, the forecast, and the impacts on America. Boston, MA: Environment America Research & Policy Center.
Moynihan, D. P. (2009). The response to Hurricane Katrina. Geneva: International Risk Governance Council.
Treaster, J. B., & Zernike, K. (2005, August 30). Hurricane Katrina slams into Gulf Coast; Dozens are dead. Retrieved from The New York Times: