In August of 2005, the Gulf Coast of the United States was pummeled by a category 5 hurricane known simply as Hurricane Katrina. This hurricane devastated the coast from Louisiana to Alabama, and reshaped the entire culture and livelihood of an entire region. Millions of Americans were affected, and thousands of communities throughout the South have seen their worlds turned upside down. This is the first in a series of articles reflecting on five years of recovery after that storm.
If you have never seen a hurricane, there is nothing that can describe the force and power behind a hurricane. In fact, if you have never seen a hurricane in person, you would find yourself in the same predicament I was in five years ago.
As someone whose job revolves around emergency management and disaster response coordination, I take particular interest in keeping up to date with disasters as they occur. While I had never seen a hurricane, I was interested in the response that occurred before, during and after the storm. From my vantage point in England, I was able to watch all of the news coverage, both American and British, but I was also able to monitor the press releases of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), Mississippi Emergency Management Agency (MEMA), as well as Louisiana’s and New Orleans government agencies.
At first glance, it appeared the Hurricane Katrina had struck New Orleans. Story after story revolved around New Orleans, the Louisiana Superdome and the levees of Lake Pontchartrain. Viewers of the Fox News, CNN, or other networks learned more about levees and their construction than anything else. It would not be until four years later, when I was newly assigned to Keesler AFB, Mississippi, that I would learn that Hurricane Katrina only brushed New Orleans. Only then would I learn where Katrina had really struck.
Hurricanes are divided into quadrants, and the winds of one quadrant are different than others. Hurricane Katrina had passed to the east of New Orleans, meaning it was hit first by the north-west quadrant, and then by the south-west quadrant. While not meaning to slight the injuries of the people of New Orleans, the winds received were significantly less than those who were met by the north-east quadrant. While some wind damage to New Orleans did occur, those winds were on par with a category 3 or 2 hurricane, which were significantly less than the category 4 and 3 winds received by the neighboring population centers.
While winds in the area did a fair amount of damage, it would be the water that stole headlines. New Orleans wind damage, while they should not be described as minimal, they pale when compared to water damage. As the heavy rains, and wind-driven storm surge, caused the levees of Lake Pontchartrain to buckle, they also obliterated the smaller communities on Eastern Louisiana and South Mississippi. At the center of the water damage lay the Louisiana Superdome in New Orleans, with 20,000 storm victims, seeking shelter and basic supplies, while other communities were completely washed off of the map.
In this series, I will look at the various communities that were devastated by Katrina, from New Orleans to Biloxi, while highlighting the progress that continues even today. In the next installment, I will look at the outlying communities of Ocean Springs and Gautier, Mississippi, two coastal communities that sit at the farthest reach of Katrina, and represent part of the untold recovery story after a once-a-generation storm. Other installments will work their way westward, telling the tales of survival and recovery, and then finally, culminating on New Orleans story of recovery, five years after the storm.