Hurricane Katrina killed 1,833 people with 1,577 being from Louisiana. Of those killed 40% were from drowning, 25% were from injury or trauma, and 11% died because of heart conditions. Almost half of the deaths in Louisiana were elderly people over age 74. Ninety thousand square miles of the United States was impacted. More than 1 million people were displaced along the gulf region. The city of New Orleans had a population of 484,674 in April 2000 and fell to 230,172 by July 2006. This is a decrease of 50%. By 2017 the city had grown to 393,292 according to the Census. 70% of New Orleans’ occupied housing, 134,000 units were damaged in the storm. Prior to Katrina 67% of New Orleans were black with 30% living in poverty. Because this population group had no way to relocate Katrina just made their situation worse. Total damage caused by Katrina is estimated to be $125 billion dollars, the costliest storm on record. Private insurance companies paid $41.1 billion for damage to vehicles, homes, and businesses. 63% of the claims occurred in Louisiana with 34% in Mississippi. National Flood Insurance paid $16.3 billion in claims. In June of 2006 a report was released by the Government Accountability Office stating at least $1 billion of the payments made by FEMA were improper and possible fraudulent.
Federal, state, and local governments have rebuilt the levees, flood walls, gates and pumps spending more than $20 billion dollars. But even those that created the system say it may not be strong enough. The system was built to protect against a 100-year flood and the city of New Orleans faces more powerful storms. New Orleans has celebrated its 300th birthday but there’s no certainty they will celebrate their 400th. Congressman Garret Graves from Louisiana and former chairman of the state’s Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority states “all along we knew that 100-year was somewhat voodoo math”. Half of the city lies below sea level and continues to sink. The protective wetlands that buffer the city are also eroding away. Scientists suggest that climate change will make the problem worse as the oceans rising will make storm surges stronger. They also state that it will bring stronger hurricanes. Mayor Mitch Landrieu stated that a 10,000 year flood standard should have been the standard when rebuilding but it came down to the cost. Initially Congress considered a plan that would provide protection for a Category 5 hurricane. Many experts suggested that level or higher. A congressional compromise was reached known as the ‘Devils Bargain’. As long as the new system could be brought up to the 100-year level people would be eligible for flood insurance. The Army Corps produced a 4,000 page report with alternatives but couldn’t offer a recommended course of action. By 2017 the seas were rising so fast that the cost would be $50 billion to build as desired. The corps did build in features that increased the design from a 100 to 500-year flood design. It was just too costly for the State of Louisiana that had to consider more than the city of New Orleans.
That covers the details of Hurricane Katrina, the warning signs prior to the storm, details of the storm, and infrastructure improvements that were made. What about the people affected? Psychologist Jean Rhodes of the University of Massachusetts-Boston and Ailsa Chang, guest host of All Things Considered have spent more than 10 years studying and interviewing Hurricane Katrina survivors. They state that most people do well in the long-term but some continue to struggle. Sixty percent have returned to where they were mentally before Katrina. Approximately 20% have increased anxiety and depression and for some there was actually an improvement from prior to Katrina. Stress can cause changes in our perspective about life and for some there was great appreciation. Also, some people received mental health care that they’d never had before. An interesting note is that the loss of a pet is a huge factor (top 3) in a person’s depression and anxiety levels. In New Orleans shelters were very open to including pets.
According to an article written by Gary Rivlin in August, 2016 there’s a huge difference in recovery between the white and black population. Approximately 96,000 fewer African-Americans are now living in New Orleans; 1 in 3 have not returned after the storm. In the Lower Ninth Ward where people lived on $16,000 before the hurricane you can drive for blocks and not see one home. Mayor Mitch Landrieu declared victory when he gave his state of the city speech just prior to the 10th anniversary of Katrina. He stated that New Orleans was no longer recovering or rebuilding but was America’s greatest comeback story. This was mostly true for white communities that looked better than before the storm because of all the new homes and businesses. But it is a different story in the eastern half of the city where tourists rarely go. Water still covered most of New Orleans when Jimmy Reiss, a prominent businessman and head of the Business Council, stated the city would come back “a completely different way: demographically, geographically, and politically, or he and other white civic leaders would not return”. Affordable housing called the ‘Big Four’ had large sections that had little or no water damage but officials chose to bulldoze the building. Road Home, a housing recovery program, was created after Katrina. Funding was disbursed based upon the value of the home instead of the cost to rebuild. This was discriminatory as most black homeowners appraised at a much lower value. A federal judge sided with black homeowners five years later but by then 98% of the $13 billion was already spent on mainly white homeowners. Most of the efforts to make New Orleans a less poor city the opposite has actually happened. Child poverty is now 4%, higher than before the storm and double the national average. Income difference between the rich and poor is so great that Bloomberg declared New Orleans as the country’s more ‘unequal’ city. The median income of black households after Katrina is $30,000, less than before when adjusted for inflation. The median income for white households is $60,000 an increase of 40%. The answer is a comprehensive urban plan that brings back blue-collar jobs but few in power are talking about anything so ambitious.
My opinion after researching Hurricane Katrina is that there are many factors that impacted and continue to impact New Orleans. The geography of half the city being below sea level is one problem and the city can’t control the weather. But most of the damage was not the hurricane winds but the failing of the levees that government officials knew could happen. There has been some improvement but because of money not the best solution. Then there was poor communication and slow response of emergency supplies and evacuation efforts. New Orleans is being rebuilt but it’s not the same. The culture and customs of a large segment of the population is gone. Maybe the black will return and maybe the levees will hold.