On August 29, 2005, the lively city of New Orleans was changed forever as Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast of the United States in the early morning hours. Over the course of the day, the storm gained steam, increasing from a category 3 to category 5 storm in a matter of nine hours. Katrina was powerful, but nothing was more damaging than the aftermath to come. Levees across the city started to break down, leading to mass flooding. With more than $100 billion in damages, communities, numbering in the hundreds of thousands, were displaced and more than 1,800 lives were lost.
Although half of New Orleans is above sea level, the city’s average elevation falls six feet below. The water surrounding the city had always been protected by levees along the Mississippi River, Lake Pontchartrain, Lake Borgne and waterlogged swamps and marshes. These structures proved to be no match against the intensity of Katrina. Against the storm’s severe rainfall and storm surge, some barriers became unstable or were swept away altogether, causing major flooding.
New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin had issued a mandatory evacuation the night before Katrina struck, but up to 100,000 residents did not have access to transportation. For many, the city’s Louisiana Superdome became a last resort for escape. But the Superdome, itself, soon became compromised by the storm. Winds reaching over 100 miles an hour damaged the shelter’s roof—after more than 10,000 people had flocked to the stadium.
Not everyone wanted or could leave home to take shelter. Eighty percent of the city became submerged after the levee failures. With most of the flooding as deep as 10 feet, it took weeks for waters to recede. Chaotic conditions following the storm made evacuation and rescue risky. Ultimately, about 60,000 people who had waited out the storm in their homes were rescued. Others, were not so lucky. In the end, some 1,833 people in Louisiana and Mississippi were killed.
In the Superdome, conditions rapidly deteriorated from bad to worse. By September 1, the number of occupants in the shelter had grown to over 30,000, with an additional 25,000 at the city’s Convention Center. Those stuck in the crowded shelters spent time looking for missing family members and friends, others began looting stores. Prior to the storm, 30 percent of New Orleans’ residents lived below the poverty line and the predicament of the storm left many more vulnerable than ever.
As conditions at the Superdome worsened, about 25,000 Katrina victims were bussed to Houston, Texas, to take shelter in the city’s Astrodome. Meanwhile, in New Orleans, reports of theft, rape and gun violence increased as food and safe water supplies were depleted. The heat of late summer and lack of sanitation facilities and products led to a foul environment for those trying to survive.
Hurricane Katrina not only left more than 1,800 human deaths in its wake, it also rendered thousands homeless as more than 800,000 housing units were destroyed or damaged in the storm. And, 10 years after Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast, many were still feeling significant psychological effects. Findings from the 2015 Gulf Coast Child and Family Health Study showed that 36 percent of children displaced to hotels or other transient settings showed symptoms of emotional disturbance—a rate nearly five times that of U.S. children overall.
A 2006 report from the Army Corps of Engineers acknowledged that design flaws in the storm walls surrounding the city caused a majority of the flooding that would prove so devastating to the community. "The hurricane protection system in New Orleans and southeast Louisiana was a system in name only," stated the Corp's 6,113-page report on the disaster.