Looking Back on Hurricane Katrina

Over a decade later, scars remain in the areas hit hardest.

Hurricane Katrina New Orleans Superdome flooding
The New Orleans Superdome served as a shelter of last resort for 30,000 people.

Mark Wilson / Getty Images

Hurricane Katrina was one of three Category 5 hurricanes to spin up during the overactive 2005 Atlantic hurricane season. Unknown at the time, it would also be the first of two major hurricanes to strike the same stretch of Louisiana coastline within the span of one month. (Hurricane Rita would make landfall a mere three weeks later.)

While Katrina impacted the Bahamas, South Florida, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Alabama, the Gulfport-Biloxi metro area and the city of New Orleans were the hardest hit. In total, the storm caused damages to the tune of $172.5 billion (adjusted cost in 2005 U.S. dollars), earning it the rank of costliest Atlantic hurricane in U.S. history—a rank it still holds as of the publication date of this article.

Hurricane Katrina Timeline

Aug. 19-24

On Aug. 19, would-be Katrina developed north of Puerto Rico when a tropical wave and the remnants of an earlier tropical depression, Tropical Depression Ten, combined. On Aug. 23, about 175 miles southeast of Nassau in the Bahamas, the storm system strengthened into a tropical depression. It was named "Tropical Storm Katrina" the following day.

Aug. 25

On the evening of Aug. 25, Katrina strengthened into a weak Category 1 hurricane. Mere hours later, it made its initial U.S. landfall near North Miami Beach, Florida.

Aug. 26-28

Shortly after midnight on Aug. 26, Katrina's eye passed directly over the National Hurricane Center office building in Miami, Florida. Within an hour of exiting the Florida peninsula, the storm, which had weakened to a tropical storm while over mainland Florida, regained Category 1 intensity while over the eastern Gulf of Mexico.

In the Gulf, Katrina underwent rapid intensification, becoming a low-end Category 3 storm by the morning of Aug. 27. The storm also nearly doubled in size, and its tropical-storm-force winds extended out to about 140 nautical miles from the storm center—far enough to produce heavy winds and rains over western Cuba.

That same day, President George W. Bush declared a state of emergency in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama.

Within the 48-hour period from Aug. 26 to Aug. 28, Katrina "bombed out" when her central pressure dropped from 968 mb to 902 mb. By the morning of Aug. 28, Katrina reached Category 5 strength with maximum sustained winds of about 167 mph. That same morning, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin declared a state of emergency and also ordered a mandatory evacuation of the city, the first in New Orleans history. As many as 30,000 evacuees sought refuge in the then-Louisiana Superdome (known today as the Mercedes-Benz Superdome).

Aug. 29

Hurricane Katrina 2005 makes landfall in Louisiana.
Hurricane Katrina shortly after landfall in Louisiana on August 29, 2005.

NOAA-NASA GOES Project / Flickr / CC By 2.0

In the pre-dawn hours of Aug. 29, Katrina made its second U.S. landfall in Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana; it was a Category 3 major hurricane with winds of 125 mph and a central pressure of 920 mb.

Before 10 A.M. local time, floodwaters breached the Industrial, 17th Street, and London Avenue Canals, submerging New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward, a predominately African-American neighborhood, and the city with up to 16 feet of water.

By sunset, Katrina had weakened to a tropical storm just north of Laurel, Mississippi.

Aug. 30-31

Katrina weakened into a tropical depression near Clarksville, Tennessee, on Aug. 30, and by day's end on Aug. 31, dissipated over the eastern Great Lakes.

The Aftermath of Katrina

Hurricane Katrina New Orleans flooding
View of an inundated New Orleans on Sept. 11, 2005.

NOAA / Flickr / Public Domain

In its wake, Katrina left over $161 million in damages and over 1800 fatalities. Over 1.2 million Louisianans were displaced by the storm, making it the greatest climate-driven migration in the United States since the Dust Bowl of the 1930s (according to the University of California-Davis, an estimated 2.5 million people left the Great Plains).

Hurricane Katrina 2005 damage Mississippi
Katrina's 28-foot storm surge destroyed the I-90 bridge from Biloxi to Ocean Springs, Mississippi.

d1g1talman / Getty Images

Mississippi (namely, the Gulfport-Biloxi area) actually bore the brunt of the storm itself, including a maximum storm surge of nearly 30 feet high along the Mississippi coast, which traveled at least six miles inland.

Hurricane Katrina rescue efforts
Lower Ninth Ward residents shelter on their rooftops while waiting for rescue crews to arrive.

Marko Georgiev / Getty Images

While New Orleans didn't suffer a direct hit, its location along the Mississippi River, proximity to Gulf of Mexico inlets, and its low elevation (NOLA's average elevation is 1-2 feet below sea level) make it highly vulnerable to flooding. So, when the levee breached in New Orleans, it compounded the damage Katrina dealt to the city.

As a result of the levee failures and storm surge, 80% of all structures in New Orleans Parish were flooded, and more than 800,000 residents were displaced from the city.

The World Meteorological Organization retired the name “Katrina,” barring its use for any future tropical storms or hurricanes in the Atlantic. It was replaced by “Katia.”

Socioeconomic Factors

Exacerbating Katrina's damage was the fact that the hardest hit states were also some of the United States' poorest. At the time Katrina hit the Gulf coastline, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Alabama ranked as the first, second, and eighth poorest states, respectively, in the nation. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimates that of the 5.8 million people in these states who were affected by Katrina, over one million—nearly one-fifth of the population impacted by the hurricane—lived in poverty prior to the storm's landfall.

Zoom in on the city of New Orleans, and the disparities are even more disturbing. According to the 2000 U.S. Census, 28% of New Orleans residents lived below the poverty line before Katrina hit, and over half of poor households lacked a vehicle.

This lack of resources made evacuation impossible for many storm victims. Unable to evacuate, they instead took refuge in the Superdome, which had been set up as a shelter of last resort. It made recovery efforts for individuals less feasible after the storm.

Political Criticism

Despite warnings from the NHC that "some levees in the greater New Orleans area could be overtopped," and those from the NWS that "most of the area will be uninhabitable for weeks," the Bush administration led an unorganized recovery response after Katrina's landfall. Although the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and National Guard had been activated, it took several days for resources—food, water, buses (to evacuate the city's remaining residents), and troops—to be distributed. The reason for these delays remains unclear, but most likely stemmed from a lack of communication between federal, state, and local governments, and from the overwhelming size and catastrophic nature of the disaster. Others, particularly New Orleanians, felt the delay in aid was a form of discrimination against the city's significant low-income and African-American populations.

Ironically, FEMA had worked with Louisiana state officials just three years earlier during the "Hurricane Pam" exercise—a disaster-planning exercise meant to prepare emergency managers for the possibility of a major hurricane striking a major, Gulf Coast city, such as New Orleans. Unfortunately, the project ended early due to the Bush administration cutting its funding, but not before it predicted that the New Orleans levee system would flood major portions of the city.

The Bush administration, FEMA, Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco, and Mayor Ray Nagin weren't the only subjects of criticism during the Katrina disaster. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) also drew public ire when it was found that four of the 50 major levee breaches resulted from foundation-induced failures. Since it was USACE who designed and built the flood walls, many blamed their flawed construction work for the city's catastrophic flooding, flood damage, and flood-related deaths.


Cleanup efforts in The Big Easy were anything but easy-going. While residents were initially cleared to return to New Orleans on Sept. 5, they were again ordered to evacuate the next day due to the city's deteriorating conditions. (Those who had initially sheltered in the Superdome were bussed to the Houston Astrodome.) Meanwhile, the USACE was making emergency repairs to floodwalls, patching levee breaches with sandbags, and employing pumps to drain the city. By Sept. 15, floodwaters which had covered about 80% of New Orleans had reduced by half. However, this progress was interrupted when, on Sept. 24, 2005, a Category 3 Hurricane Rita made landfall in southwestern Louisiana, inundating New Orleans with an additional six inches of rainfall, and triggering renewed flooding across the city.

On Oct. 11, 43 days after Katrina's landfall, the USACE finished removing all floodwaters—a total of 250 billion gallons—from the city of New Orleans. In response to the catastrophic levee failures, USACE issued new guidelines in levee building in 2018.

The Louisiana Superdome, which sustained 32.5 million in damages when Katrina's winds peeled off sections of its roof, took 13 months to renovate.

One of the most daunting post-Katrina challenges was the rebuilding of homes and neighborhoods. To assist with this effort, the Make It Right Foundation was formed by actor-philanthropist Brad Pitt in 2007. The nonprofit was meant to build 150 sustainable, storm-resistant homes for residents of the decimated Lower Ninth Ward. However, only 109 homes were completed before Make It Right was struck with a series of lawsuits for supposedly using defective materials, among other complaints.

Hurricane Katrina 2005 recovery New Orleans
View of the Lower Ninth Ward neighborhood circa 2008 (notice the empty plots).

FEMA / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

Today, more than fifteen years post-Katrina, New Orleans' population still hasn't fully recovered—it stands at 86% of its pre-Hurricane Katrina levels. Four neighborhoods, including the Lower Ninth Ward, where, as reported by NPR, only about 37% of households have returned, still have less than half the population they had prior to Katrina.

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