On August 29th, of 2005 life for many residents of the Gulf Coast Region of the United States would change forever. Residents of Louisiana and Mississippi would bear witness to one of the worst hurricanes in history. Many would lose their homes and their lives because of the storm itself and the damage it caused. The bulk of the damage was not caused directly by Katrina making landfall, but indirectly, because of the storm surge and the levees being breached.
Hurricane Katrina made landfall on August 29th at just after 7am in an area called Plaquemines Parish Louisiana with sustained winds of 125 MPH as a Category 3 hurricane on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale. The scale was created by Herbert Saffir, in 1969 with the help of Dr. Bob Simpson who was director of the National Hurricane Center at that time. The scale basically assigns a numerical value of one to five one being the lowest and 5 being the most intense to hurricanes based on their wind strength. The scale gives an indication as to the type of damage possible given the wind strength measured in the hurricane which allows for more effective disaster response and preparedness. In regards to Hurricane Katrina and its Category 3 status – the Saffir-Simpson scale states: “Some structural damage to small residences and utility buildings with a minor amount of curtainwall failures. Mobile homes are destroyed. Flooding near the coast destroys smaller structures with larger structures damaged by floating debris. Terrain continuously lower than 5 feet ASL may be flooded.”
Unfortunately Hurricane Katrina showed us most graphically that we were NOT prepared for such a natural disaster. The days immediately following Hurricane Katrina making landfall were full of missteps by local and federal governments who, at the time seemed to be unable to determine the best course of action and to implement whatever disaster measures there had been in place prior to Katrina. The Governor of Louisiana at the time, Kathleen Blanco, did not call for a total evacuation of the Superdome, which was being utilized as an emergency shelter, until August 30th. It is and was most telling that at the time of the hurricane itself and the days immediately following, there were major difficulties in getting local, state and federal officials and government agencies to coordinate their services. Rescues were hampered. Volunteer EMT’s were prevented from assisting as logistics were haphazard. Eventually it got so bad that individuals with boats were just going around looking to see if they could find people.
Some celebrities hired boats and went on search and rescue missions on their own. Frustrated, as many were with the pace of rescue operations and the scenes of people crying for help stranded on their rooftops.
By that time several of the levees in key areas in New Orleans had already been compromised and 80% of the city was covered with water. In some areas, the water was said to be 20 feet high. The Superdome itself was damaged as the winds from Hurricane Katrina literally tore part of the roof off and caused rain to pour in. There was also flooding on the field level as well. The stories of the time spent in the superdome are legend and tales of rape, people left dying, and total chaos are hard for the average person to comprehend. Man’s inhumanity to man was in full effect with those seeking shelter in the Superdome during Hurricane Katrina.
The storm damage caused by Hurricane Katrina was over a 90,000 square-mile area which is about the size of Great Britain. The states directly affected and damaged were, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama. Over 270,000 people sought shelters after Katrina made landfall. Since Hurricane Katrina hit, over 99 million cubic yards of debris have been removed in Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi. The storm surge created by Hurricane Katrina was approximately 27.8 feet high which was spread over a 20 mile stretch of the Mississippi Coastline. This same surge caused 53 different levee breaches in greater New Orleans, submerging eighty percent of the city.
The effects of Katrina on the environment are widespread. Immediately after Katrina hit reports of severe pollution and illnesses resulting from contact with flood water and muck were rampant. There were many reports of rashes and blisters breaking out on skin that has come into contact with polluted water. Infected stores that are resistant to antibiotics were a common complaint. Waterborne disease was a risk because of the polluted waters but also because of the petroleum residue from damaged Oil rigs, which are a mainstay of the Gulf Coast, especially in the Louisiana costal area. Due to the extensive damage obtaining medical attention was a major challenge and impediment to those returning home and still is to this day. The missteps spoken of earlier with regards to the response to Katrina show up here as well as people were not told of the true toxicity of the air, and the dangers of inhaling the fumes. While the EPA was aware of the dangerous levels of toxins, that information was not presented to the public. Rescue workers who should have been wearing protective breathing devices did not have them and many were not told of the risks associated with inhaling these noxious fumes.
Perhaps the most damning affect of Hurricane Katrina was the inept response which led to, at the very least, widespread death, and at the worst, the most inhumane conditions possible for people to be in. The Governor, Kathleen Blanco, sent in a request for a declaration of a state of emergency, but neglected to indicate specifically the names of ALL of the parishes in Louisiana that needed to be included. This led to unnecessary back and forth and delays. Many nursing homes who rely on private bus companies and ambulance companies were unable to evacuate because they waited too long. There were buses available for transport, BUT there were not enough drivers to drive them. Governor Blanco did not sign an emergency waiver to allow ANY licensed driver to transport evacuees on school buses. The last resort evacuation to the superdome – that was done as stated as a last ditch effort and with the knowledge that there were no PROVISIONS for evacuees. Mayor Ray Nagin, delayed emergency evacuation order until 19 hours before Katrina made landfall, which led to more deaths as by that time those who remained could not find any way out of the city. The report presented by the bipartisan committee to Investigate the preparation for and response to Hurricane Katrina, “A Failure of Initiative” , speaks to the horrible missteps, failures and general failure on all levels with regards to the response to Katrina and preparations in general for natural disasters in the Gulf Coast Region.
As a result of all these, environmental, government screw ups, and public health hazards, the New Orleans area in particular is still, 5 years later a long way from restoration back to even close to what it was prior to Hurricane Katrina. Many homes still have yet to be taken down, although condemned and unfit for human habitation. The environmental issues have gone from those concerns about the immediate pollution, to concerns about government provided “trailers” that were found to contain high (toxic) amounts of formaldehyde. While the Mississippi, and Alabama areas seem to, have for the most part rebounded quite well, the Louisiana area is still a long way on the road to recovery, due in part to the type of infrastructure damage that Katrina caused(levees, flood walls etc.) as well as the inept governmental response and coordination. Many survivors will never return, some will never tell the tale. We have but to look at images to see what the effects of Hurricane Katrina have been and are and can only pray for a speedy and safe recovery.