10 Year Anniversary of Hurricane Katrina

By BRENDAN HEBERTON.  Aug 19, 2015

Hurricane Katrina made multiple U.S. landfalls during the last days of August, 2005. First slamming Florida on August 25th, 2005 as a category 1 hurricane, the cyclone would move into the Gulf of Mexico and strengthen before making a second landfall as a category 3 hurricane in Louisiana on the morning of August, 29th, 2005. In the hours and days following the landfall in New Orleans it was clear the storm had inflicted extraordinary damage on the region, leaving behind a scar that would take years to heal.

"Just looking out our windows, the devastation is amazing" said Joshua Norman of Biloxi, Mississippi of the storm. "There was an atmosphere of lawlessness, the place was out of control. I was frightened, to be honest" recalled Jonathan Hare of the days following Katrina in New Orleans.

Prior to making landfall in New Orleans, Katrina strengthened into a category 5 hurricane as it moved across the heart of the warm Gulf of Mexico waters, reaching maximum sustained winds of 175mph on August 28th. Evacuation orders went out to an estimated 1 million people along the Gulf Coast, as Katrina set sights on the Louisiana and Mississippi coastline.

It is estimated that nearly 100,000 people remained in New Orleans during the storm, either by choice or otherwise. Those that stayed behind braved the storm in their homes and various shelters across the city, with nearly 10,000 people hunkering down in the New Orleans' Superdome. Katrina displaced the greatest number of individuals in the United States since the Dust Bowl.

This month marks the ten-year anniversary of Katrina, so we mark it with a look back at this incredible cyclone, the devastation it brought to the Gulf coast region, and the progress made in rebuilding over the last decade.

Animate Track
Hurricane Katrina Track and Wind Speed (NOAA)

Eye from the Sky

Little in (or out of) this world holds the same tremendous impact as seeing a tropical cyclone from space. While tools to visualize the weather continue to increase on a daily bases, seeing the enormity of a hurricane from space never falls short in offering perspective.

This was no less true for Katrina in 2005. The imagery progression below is Katrina as captured by the Aqua and Terra satellites. Here we see the same track as shown in the map above, but as satellite imagery of the storm. Click the first image, and step through each for larger versions.

“We’re not even dealing with dead bodies. They’re just pushing them on the side.”
– New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin regarding early days of search and rescue in New Orleans

Human Toll

The death toll from Katrina was devastating. There are many estimates for number of lives lost ranging from 1,300 to nearly 1,900. The commonly held number is 1,833, though many have disputed this number in recent years.

In 2008, the Department of Health and Hospitals in Louisiana published a report that determined an upper-bound estimate of 1,400 lives lost. The same study found that of the confirmed 971 victims in Louisiana 53% were men, and 51% were African American. Over half of all fatalities were victims of 74 years and older.

Whether 1,833 or 1,400, Katrina was the deadliest United States hurricane since 1928, and 3rd deadliest on record for the country. Other more recent major hurricanes saw much lower death tolls, including hurricane Andrew in 1992, when less than 100 people were killed. Over the last decade there have been a lot of theories as to why so many people lost their lives in Katrina, but whatever the root cause it was clear that underserved populations and the elderly were particularly vulnerable in the wake of the landfall and breached levees.

Fatalities by Age and Race (DHH)

"Most of the area will be uninhabitable for weeks ... perhaps longer"
– The National Weather Service office in Slidell, La. (Aug 27, 2005)

Population Displaced

For those that escaped the wrath of Katrina, the journey was only beginning when the hurricane made landfall the morning of August 29th. The dramatic shift in population would have a ripple effect across the country, as hundreds of thousands of people left home not knowing if they would ever return. Many residents eventually made the migration back to their hometowns. But 10 years out from hurricane, it’s now clear that tens or even hundreds of thousands of people never returned to the homes that Katrina forced them out of.

According to U.S. Census intercensal estimates, only seven counties in the United States saw a loss of both >3% of their population and >3,000 people between 2005 and 2006. All seven of these counties are located along the Gulf Coast and took a direct hit from hurricane Katrina. Three of the counties were in Mississippi (Hancock, Harison, and Jackson Counties) while four were in Louisiana (St. Bernard, Orleans, Plaquemines, and Jefferson Parishes).

Over 1 million people were displaced from their homes due to the hurricane, some for just a few days, and many others for weeks, months, and even years. According to census estimates, Orleans Parish saw the greatest number of people displaced from 2005 to 2006, with 264,122 fewer people estimated to live in the parish the year following Katrina. Meanwhile, St. Bernard Parish saw the greatest percentage of its population decrease, with 77% fewer people living in the parish in 2006 compared to 2005.

In total, these seven counties saw a decrease of 392,516 people the year following Katrina, or nearly that of the estimated population of the city of Cleveland, Ohio in 2014.

Population change 2005 - 2006 greater than 3% and total pop > 5,000 (U.S. Census)
County Intercensal Estimates | Comparing 2005 and 2006 populations
State County/Parish Pre Katrina Pop (2005) Post Katrina Pop (2006) Population Change Percent Change
Louisiana St. Bernard Parish 71,300 16,563 -54,737 -77%
Louisiana Orleans Parish 494,294 230,172 -264,122 -54%
Louisiana Plaquemines Parish 29,558 22,329 -7,229 -25%
Mississippi Hancock County 47,715 40,087 -7,628 -16%
Mississippi Harrison County 197,784 174,449 -23,335 -12%
Louisiana Jefferson Parish 456,554 426,285 -30,269 -8%
Mississippi Jackson County 137,913 132,717 -5,196 -4%
Totals: 1,435,118 1,042,602 -392,516 -28%

Today, the population of New Orleans remains below pre-Katrina numbers, having only recovered about 57% of the population that left between 2005 and 2006. The estimated population of Orleans Parish is now 384,320, which is approximately 77% of the population the city boasted in 2005.

The chart below shows the rapid drop in population in Orleans Parish between 2005 and 2006, with a slow, but steady increase over the last years since.

Levee Up, Levee Down

Flooding, exacerbated by breached levees in New Orleans, caused extensive damage to infrastructure, housing, and other public services. It's estimated that up to 80% of the metro New Orleans area saw flooding from Katrina and the failed levees.

The breached levees have since been rebuilt, with an estimated price tag of $14.3 billion. To many people marking the 10 year anniversary of Katrina, there is an err of caution in celebrating the reinforced infrastructure meant to protect New Orleans – understandably rooted in the fear that it could take another hit. An engineer from the University of California, Berkeley inspected the levees in 2007 and found "several weak spots" according to an article published in National Geographic. Ten years later, and the debate as to how safe New Orleans is when it comes to the levees holding up under a 100 year event (or 500, or 1000) carries on.

In returning to Katrina 10 years later, we’re easily bewildered by the complex breakdown of social, economic, and public infrastructures that were set in place to protect the citizens of the region. In 2006, NPR took a look at "one of the worst engineering disasters of all time", we share this story below.

Over 350,000 homes destroyed

For many the option to return home has never been there, or the idea of rebuilding was simply too daunting a task. According to FEMA, 352,930 homes were destroyed across Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama, with an additional 139,376 homes sustaining "major" damage. Sandy is the only storm on record to hit the United States and cause similar destruction to homes, with other notable hurricanes causing far less destruction to homes.

Ten years later the University of New Orleans Department of Geography estimates 81% of the homes in Orleans and St. Bernard parishes have been rebuilt, with 15% of the homes being razed and never rebuilt.

Homes damaged or destroyed in Katrina compared to other memorable storms:

Relief Effort

The response to Katrina was simultaneously an extraordinary example of generosity and good will, and an extraordinary example of bureaucracy failures and ineptitude.

The volunteer response to Katrina was tremendous, with people coming from around the country and the world to help. It's likely well over 1 million volunteers have helped to rebuild in the region over the last decade, with Americorps alone estimating 39,169 of their members have served alongside 648,251 Americorps volunteers over the years.

In the weeks that followed Katrina it was the Red Cross that moved in to offer aid to those impacted by the storm. Over 74,000 Red Cross volunteers served over 7.5 million hot meals to over 150,000 people in shelters across the region over just the first two weeks following the storm.

Overshadowed by systemic failures

Rebuilding did not come without its own set of challenges, however. In the early years the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was plagued with controversy, from a slow response on the part of the federal government to accusations of mismanagement and ineptitude. Blame was passed from local government to FEMA to then President Bush and back, for what in the end was in many ways a systemic failure with no one place to point a finger in responding to such a large-scale catastrophe.

Staggering cost

The National Centers for Environmental Information under NOAA estimates the dollar cost of Katrina exceeded $151 billion dollars (CPI adjusted number) making it over twice as costly as the next costliest natural disaster in the United States, "Superstorm" Sandy in 2012. Rounding out the list of the top three most expensive natural disasters is hurricane Andrew, with a price tag of $46 billion dollars in 1992.

The rebuilding effort over the last decade has taken a huge amount of effort and money from all involved. While there were justifiable misgivings about the federal response in the days, weeks, and months following Katrina, this in one respect speaks to the shear scale and devastation this powerful storm wreaked. In the end it took each and every volunteer, the effort from local and federal governments, and time to make the progress (and continuing progress) we've seen over the last decade.

Ten Years Later

Needless to say, the road to recovery has been a slow one for the region. Metropolitan New Orleans saw a labor force of ~550,000 pre-Katrina drop to 479,129 the year following the storm, and an unemployment rate jump from 5.9% to 15% in the wake of Katrina. Today unemployment in the region remains high, but nowhere near those months following the storm. And the labor force continues to steadily grow, with the latest estimate from the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimating a labor force of 613,639 as of June, 2015.

As we reflect this month the impact of this historic natural disaster, we remember the lives lost and lives forever changed 10 years ago. Through much criticism and hardship there have been areas of great recovery over the last decade, but still plenty of work to do. While the United States has been spared in recent years from direct hits from major hurricane (category 3 or greater), this surely won't last forever.

Major drought for major hurricane U.S. landfalls

Hurricane Wilma of 2005 was the last major hurricane to make landfall in the United States. While historical accounts are a bit muddied, this is the longest stretch on record without a major landfall. All of the landfalls in the map below occurred either in 2004 (Charley, Ivan, Jeanne) or 2005 (Dennis, Katrina, Rita, Wilma). The map below shows all the major hurricanes (category 3 or greater) to make landfall in the United States since 2000, remarkably none of which occurred in the last ten years.

Major hurricane U.S. landfalls 2000 - 2014
Cat 5

What has happened down here, is the wind have changed?

The people of New Orleans and the entire Gulf Coast are a resilient people, and their story over the last decade, while tragic, is also inspirational. The song earlier in this piece, "Louisiana 1927" by Randy Newman, is about another flood that ravaged the city of New Orleans nearly a century ago. While not about Katrina, the song became something of a state anthem in the years that followed Katrina, and serves as reminder to us all of the struggle and beauty of life even in the hardest of times.

Sources: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), National Weather Service (NWS), National Hurricane Center (NHC), National Climatic Data Center (NCDC), National Geographic, U.S. Census, Washington Post, New York Times, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Americorps, Red Cross, National Public Radio (NPR), Army Corps of Engineers, Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA), Department of Health and Hospitals in Louisiana.