Hurricane Katrina: Ten Years Later
Hurricane Katrina was the worst natural disaster in United States history, and it has been just over 10 years since it decimated the city of New Orleans. Six hundred thousand homes were destroyed and eighteen hundred people perished in this environmental tragedy. Terribly unprepared, slow to act, and mismanaged, disaster relief has learned much from its failures during this crisis. The lessons learned, progress made, and current state of the region is a testament to the powerful determination of the human spirit. The following essay, written by a talented writer from Ultius, reflects upon Hurricane Katrina – then and now.
Levee failure during hurricane Katrina
After the storm hit, most of the relevant parties denied responsibility for their part in the ineffective preventative and support systems. The Army Corps of Engineers claimed the storm was too powerful to be held back by any levee system, but:
As the Army Corps eventually conceded, they were breached because of flawed engineering and collapsed because they were junk. Sheet piling — metal planks driven into the ground to reinforce levees and flood walls — didn’t run deep enough. Corps geologists botched tests that should have determined soil stability below the levees. The Corps and local levee boards that maintain flood barriers pinched pennies. (Horne)
Learning painfully from that past mistake, today New Orleans has a new $14.5 billion dollar levee system to ensure the city is as protected as it can be against the powerful super storms which have become more common through climate change. It has been coined “The Great Wall of New Orleans” and this protective shield rings the entire city for 133 miles (ABC). Learning from the mistakes of cutting corners.
After Hurricane Katrina, the corps studied very carefully what had happened and how the system had performed and where it had failed. And since then, the Corps has applied those lessons…The system that is around the city or that surrounds the city now is many times more robust than the system that existed prior to Katrina. (ABC)
This investment helps the people of New Orleans fee safer in the face of extreme weather conditions. Still under construction, this levee system is slated to be fully completed in 2017, and is based on withstanding 152 different storm models (ABC).
The Superdome becomes a hurricane shelter
The massive Superdome was the go-to shelter for the region when Katrina hit, and the stadium took massive damage during the storm’s raging. During this challenging time:
For six long days, nearly 30,000 people sought safety inside. The stands were packed with throngs of frightened people, including children and the elderly. People slept on the concrete floor as violent winds pounded the roof, eventually peeling parts of it off so that the storm’s torrential rains poured inside. Water and food became scarce. (ABC)
The ineptness of the emergency crews to get food, water, or blankets to the victims of the storm was overwhelming, and has become emblematic of the overall failure. For months after the hurricane calmed down the Superdome remained broken, but renovating it became priority number one for the city which needed a symbol of hope. After spending $336 million:
“The Superdome, which was the spot of probably the most devastating scenes that America has seen in its lifetime, after the renovation, [has] turned into this beautiful, new building” (ABC).
Not only does the Superdome stand as a place of recovery, but of celebration which is one of the predominant characteristic of the people of New Orleans.
The fate of pets after Katrina
One of the lesser known victims of the Katrina were the pets of the region. Many thousands of the human victims of the storm did not evacuate because they were not allowed to take their pets to the shelter, and choose to stay with their beloved companion animals rather than abandon them to a certain death. Many of these families climbed onto their roofs with their pets awaiting rescue, but when the rescue helicopters came they refused access to the pets, and so some refused to be rescued. At the time of Katrina:
“State and Federal rescue organizations had no formal policy on evacuating animals during disasters, and so many people in need of help were faced with a harrowing choice: they could be saved, but only if they left their animals behind” (Brangham).
This lapse in humanitarian consideration led to many other consequences after the waters receded.
Rescue attempts for abandoned pets
Thousands of dogs were left behind in the ruins, and being abandoned became wild and bred reverting away from domestication. This led to the region being overrun with wild dogs in the years following Katrina, adding another element of risk to repairing the city. Also, after the disaster when Americans around the nation heard that many pets had been left behind, many traveled to the region to pet rescue. Non-profits organized the rescue of many animals, but did not keep accurate records of where they were rescued from. Wrongly, these rescuers assumed that since the owners had left the pets behind they no longer deserved them, and were focused on getting these pets new homes. It was reported that it was a convenient choice for those adopting Katrina pets:
“to imagine that the animals had been abandoned by their owners, or that their owners had been neglectful; some people went so far as to say that Katrina was the best thing that could have happened to those pets” (PBS).
Pets of Katrina victims were shipped all over America to new homes, effectively stealing these animals. When the human Katrina survivors returned to the wreckage to find their pets stolen they were hurt and enraged.
Outcry against pet relocations during hurricane relief
Many people tried to get their pets back, even going as far as tracking them done around the nation, and going to court to try and get them back from the new owners. However:
One of the cruelties of Katrina was how it cast the refugee diaspora to the furthest reaches of the nation. Many New Orleans residents had no homes to return to, and were barred by police and National Guard troops from reentering their neighborhoods to look for their animals. Many had no means of reaching the animal shelters, since they had been bussed and flown to Houston, or Chicago, or Los Angeles. (PBS)
This complex and sad story was caught in the PBS documentary MINE (PBS). Since this experience new regulations have passed which require disaster relief and shelters to make room for companion animals, and in this measure at least some good can come from this aspect of tragedy. However, inherent in every aspect of the Katrina debacle is the question of how issue of race and racism effected the prevention, the disaster relief, and the recovery process. This element of the disaster has yet to be healed, accepted, or even discussed much ten years after the incident.
Racial tensions intensify during Katrina
The issue of racism in the area was exacerbated by the disaster. Discussing how race issues effected hurricane Katrina processes is best done by the victims themselves, those who were there, on the ground, and in the water. The media notoriously skews such matters, and the voice of the victims is ultimately the only credible one. Most of the people affected by Katrina, and the survivors thereof are African Americans, and their perspective of the tragedy is one definitely tainted by racism. Community activist Leah Hodges reported:
- “They died from abject neglect. We left body bags behind… The people of New Orleans were stranded in a flood and were allowed to die” (NBC).
- “Troops focused machine gun laser targets on her granddaughter’s forehead” (NBC).
- “Others said their families were called racial epithets by police” (NBC).
Katrina victim Doreen Keller reported:
- “Yes, it was an issue of race. Because of one thing: when the city had pretty much been evacuated, the people that were left there mostly was black” (NBC).
- “I blame local. I blame state. I blame federal. I think we got disappointed by every rank of government that exists” (NBC).
The day after the water’s receded “white vigilante justice” teams were reported to have terrorized the region under the guise of protecting their neighborhoods from looters. These residents were from the Algiers Point location in New Orleans, a region with levees strong enough to block the flooded Mississippi. Largely a white neighborhood, the militia was created to stop the flood of black people from coming into their area looking for help. However, with the police distracted and the government occupied, these white residents took the opportunity to allow their racism run amok:
“This newly formed militia, a loose band of about fifteen to thirty residents, most of them men, all of them white, was looking for thieves, outlaws or, as one member put it, anyone who simply ‘didn’t belong’” (Thompson).
After extensive investigation, it was found that at least eleven black men were shot by the white militia during this interim period in the chaos of Katrina. The new information should reframe our understanding of the catastrophe. Immediately after the storm, the media portrayed African-Americans as looters and thugs–Mayor Ray Nagin, for example, told Oprah Winfrey that:
‘hundreds of gang members’ were marauding through the Superdome. Now it’s clear that some of the most serious crimes committed during that time were the work of gun-toting white males. (Thompson)
This reality has not been addressed legally or culturally. The wounds of clear racism against the victims of Katrina has not healed, and is one of many continuous wounds inflicted in this way every day in America. Resilient, strong in solidarity, and full of strength, it is the African American community in New Orleans who have seen to their own recovery (Lavelle).
The Katrina disaster reveals the chaos, aggression, and fear which lies just under the surface of society in America. However, it also reveals the determination of spirit, and the willingness to learn from mistakes. The greatest and worst of humanity is revealed in moments of crisis, but the only way to overcome systemic abuse is for more Americans to become aware of the corruption which feeds on democracy just under the byline. Awareness is the key to ending racism and other such disempowering cycles.
ABC News. “10 Years After Katrina, New Orleans Still on the Mend But Making Strides.” ABCnews.go.com. 22 Aug. 2015. Retrieved from: http://abcnews.go.com/US/10-years-katrina-orleans-mend-making-strides/story?id=32858919.
Brangham, William. “How did Katrina change how we evacuate pets from disaster?” PBS. 29 Aug. 2015. Retrieved from: http://www.pbs.org/newshour/rundown/hurricane-katrina-change-way-evacuate-pets-devastation/.
Horne, Jed. “Five myths about Hurricane Katrina.” The Washington Post. 31 Aug. 2012. Retrieved from: https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/five-myths-about-hurricane-katrina/2012/08/31/003f4064-f147-11e1-a612-3cfc842a6d89_story.html.
Lavelle, Kristen. “Hurricane Katrina: The race and class debate.” Monthly Review. 58.3(2006). Retrieved from: http://monthlyreview.org/2006/07/01/hurricane-katrina-the-race-and-class-debate/.
NBC. “Katrina victims blame racism for slow aid.” NBC.news.com. 2 June 2005. Retrieved from: http://www.nbcnews.com/id/10354221/ns/us_news-katrina_the_long_road_back/t/katrina-victims-blame-racism-slow-aid/#.V0BxAeI24wA.
PBS. “MINE.” PBS.org. Retrieved from: http://www.pbs.org/independentlens/mine/film.html.
Thompson, A.C. “Katrina’s Hidden Race War.” The Nation. 17 Dec. 2008. Retrieved from: http://www.thenation.com/article/katrinas-hidden-race-war/.