The United States’ mainland has been home to multiple natural disasters including tornadoes, earthquakes, and hurricanes. However, none of these has delivered more damage and carnage like hurricanes which annually occur during the Atlantic Hurricane season that occurs between the months of June and November. Although weather experts in the National Hurricane Centre (NHC) have the capacity and ability to predict the occurrence and direction of the hurricanes in advance, it has proven to be impossible to adequately prepare for the effects of these massive storms. The sheer force of the winds alone is appalling. Nevertheless, most of the damage results from the ensuing heavy rains and storm surge. These sometimes interfere with the normal course of rivers causing massive flooding in low-lying areas. Hurricanes Laura and Katrina were recorded to have reversed the course of the Mississippi River for almost 24 hours (Ebrahimji & Garrett, 2020). Such a scale of force is often impossible to adequately prepare for. Nevertheless, the country tries its best to put across preparation measures both at the national and state levels to help reduce the widespread loss of lives and property. Such was the case with Hurricane Katrina, which was dubbed as the worst natural disaster in American history by Douglas Brinkley, the Katherine Tsanoff Brown Chair in Humanities and Professor of History at Rice University.
Preparation and Landing of Hurricane Katrina
The possibilities of a cataclysm happening were predicted by the NHC as early as 26th August 2005 following an analysis of tropical disruptions in the Atlantic depression. The disruption of choice was identified on 23rd August 2005 as Tropical Depression Twelve in the Southeastern side of the Bahamas. It resulted from the merger of the remnants of a prior Tropical Depression Ten and a tropical wave on 19th August 2005 (United States. Executive Office of the President et al., 2006). On 24th August 2005, Tropical Depression Twelve strengthened and attained Tropical Storm status. It was, henceforth, named Katrina, being the eleventh named storm in that year’s Hurricane Season. The possibilities of tropical storm Katrina strengthening into a massive hurricane were immense. As such, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) constituted a Hurricane Liaison Team (HLT) that was tasked with working together with both federal and state emergency agencies by providing technical advice and forecast updates. The HLT notified FEMA Region 9 to prepare for possible backup in the event that the states of Mississippi and Georgia became affected by the storm. Katrina strengthened throughout 25th August 2005, and was upgraded to a category 1 hurricane by the NHC and predicted to make landfall in Florida later in the day.
The scare following the landfall announcements forced the state of Florida and the Gulf Coast localities to activate their emergency response plans consisting of three elements: planning for possible evacuations and temporary sheltering locations, issuing emergency declarations, and pre-position response assets. The most intense preparations were done in Florida as the National Weather Service predicted not only one, but two landfalls. FEMA deployed its largest contingency of emergency supplies ever into the state of Florida. This contingency included; 100 truckloads of ice, 70 trucks of water, and 35 truckloads of food in specific locations in Georgia. Hurricane Katrina’s first landfall occurred at 6:30 pm on 25th August 2005 (United States. Executive Office of the President, et al., 2006). Though still a category one hurricane, Katrina caused more than a dozen fatalities as a result of its gale-force winds peaking 80miles per hour and heavy rains upwards of 14-16 inches in certain locations (United States. Executive Office of the President, et al., 2006). The hurricane also caused over 1.4 million power outages, $400 million in agricultural losses, and $2 billion in economic losses (United States. Executive Office of the President, et al., 2006). No one expected a category 1 hurricane to cause such damage. The worst news, however, was that storm was expected to make a second landfall.
Following the horrific events of the first landfall, FEMA launched a second massive deployment of resources as an emergency response to the anticipated second landfall. This second contingency included more than 400 truckloads of ice, over 500 water truckloads, and approximately 200 truckloads of food in selected logistics centers across Georgia, Alabama, South Carolina, and Louisiana (United States. Executive Office of the President, et al., 2006). Moreover, FEMA also placed Emergency Response Teams – Advance Elements (ERT-As) and Rapid Needs Assessment on high alert. These are the first response teams to be deployed in an emergency situation after a natural disaster. Part of the preparations involved conducting daily video teleconferences at noon from that day until after the hurricane made its second landfall (Lavery, 2009). These video teleconferences were aimed at coordination of support and assistance among federal, state, and local agencies. Preparation efforts were also made by private entities including the Norfolk Southern Railroad and the Cargill Corporation. The latter, an agricultural company, stationed freight carriers offshore so as to continue ferrying grains after Katrina struck. The former predicted severe damage to key bridges and pre-staged repair badges to allow for quick response and repair after Katrina’s second landfall.
Katrina weakened to a tropical storm following its initial landfall in Florida. However, by early morning on 26th August, the storm had strengthened into a category 1 hurricane as it barreled through the warm Gulf waters (United States. Executive Office of the President, et al., 2006). However, the behemoth moved westwards instead of the earlier predicted northwards trajectory. This change in direction meant that Katrina was headed towards New Orleans and neighboring locations rather than the earlier thought Alabama-Florida panhandle (United States. Executive Office of the President, et al., 2006). Katrina’s new trajectory enabled it to further intensify into a category 2 hurricane in the course of the day. The NHC released a new direction forecast that predicted Katrina’s second landfall to be expected east of New Orleans as a category 4 or 5 storm (United States. Executive Office of the President, et al., 2006). Furthermore, the agency forecasted that the storm could bring as high as fifteen to twenty feet higher than normal tide storm surges. Preparations were heightened on this day in the new locations predicted to be hit by the storm. The state preparations set up by the states of Mississippi and Louisiana included; issuing a state of emergency, assigning personnel for emergency response operations, and activating their respective Emergency Operation Centers (EOCs) (United States. Executive Office of the President, et al., 2006).
Katrina quickly strengthened into a category 3 storm in the early hours of 27th August. The storm also tremendously increased in size almost doubling, with the NHS predicting its imminent intensification into a category 4 storm (United States. Executive Office of the President, et al., 2006). The following day, Katrina strengthened into a category 5 storm within a span of 6 hours (Lavery, 2009). Additionally, the storm had immensely grown in size. This new development prompted mandatory evacuation efforts coordinated by the federal and state government on people residing in low-lying areas across Louisiana and the Mississippi. Hurricane Katrina made landfall early morning on 29th August as a powerful category 3 storm (Thomas, 2005). Despite weakening from its category 4 status, the storm brought record-high storm surges that peaked at 27 feet in Louisiana and Mississippi (Thomas, 2005). In addition to the damage caused by the storm surge and powerful 135mph winds, Katrina led to the overtopping and breach of the levee systems in New Orleans (United States. Executive Office of the President, et al., 2006). Moreover, pumping systems that would have prevented the mass flooding of the low-lying areas in New Orleans were rendered dysfunctional due to the widespread power outages. Katrina’s death toll was estimated at 1,330 with thousands injured. The damage to property and infrastructure was shocking with whole communities being submerged as far as in Alabama.
Planning by The Local Government and its Effects
The first state to be hit by Hurricane Katrina was Florida. Unlike the other states hit by the storm, Florida was hit by a relatively weaker and smaller storm than the monstrous level 4 behemoth that battered Louisiana and Mississippi. Moreover, the NHC’s predictions regarding the Florida hit were both timely and accurate. The state of Florida made preparation for Katrina including early identification of shelters for displaced people and the closing of schools in locations expected to bear the blatant force of the storm. The state also made various early evacuations that started as voluntary and became mandatory for people residing in places along the path of the storm. The then Florida governor declared a state of emergency over 24 hours before Katrina made fall, thus giving evacuation personnel enough time to evacuate as many people as possible (United States. Executive Office of the President, et al., 2006). The timely preparations also ensured that the state of Florida was able to pre-position both supplies and logistics in advance.
Preparations for Hurricane Katrina were not properly undertaken in Louisiana and Mississippi. Foremost, the storm was not expected to strengthen and increase in size so fast after striking the state of Florida. Secondly, prior forecasts released by the NHC had predicted that the storm would make a second landfall in Florida. However, the storm changed direction on 26th August, and instead of heading northwards back to Florida, it headed westwards (Thomas, 2005). Massive preparations had already been put in place to deal with a second landfall in Florida. Nevertheless, the storm was now heading towards the Gulf Coast with Louisiana and Mississippi being in its direct path. The Gulf Coast only had three days to prepare for this storm that was fast increasing in size and intensity.
The Gulf Coast was lackluster in its preparations. The states of Louisiana and Mississippi quickly identified evacuation and temporary settlement centers and made pre-positions of food, clean water, and ice in multiple truckloads. Emergency response teams were also deployed from the local, state, and federal levels. Following a directive from the then-president George W. Bush, the states of Mississippi and Louisiana declared a state of emergency (the United States. Executive Office of the President, et al., 2006). However, evacuation exercises remained voluntary and were conducted within the limited scope of the state authorities. Mandatory evacuations were only announced in low-lying areas including the city of New Orleans 20 hours to Katrina’s landfall. Although 80% of the city was evacuated, tens of thousands of people were left behind (Lavery, 2009). The people left behind were those who could not evacuate because of the lack of vehicles. The outcome of the hasty preparations were hefty economic damages, the displacement of tens of thousands of people, multiple injuries, and massive fatalities.
The preparations done in the Gulf Coast saved a lot of lives considering the little time and the uncertainty surrounding the direction and strength of Hurricane Katrina. However, more could have been done to save lives. An earlier simulation conducted by FEMA had identified that the levees in New Orleans would fail in the event that a strong category 3, 4, or 5 hurricanes hit Louisiana directly (Thomas, 2005). However, despite having this knowledge, the mayor of New Orleans did not involve the federal government in the evacuation activities. Secondly, the mandatory evacuation order was issued by the mayor of New Orleans less than 20 hours to Katrina making landfall (the United States. Executive Office of the President, et al., 2006). This was very insufficient time for everyone to be evacuated, especially the people requiring special care. The order should have been issued concurrently with the state of emergency order for the states of Louisiana and Mississippi to allow for enough evacuation time.
Although the state governments of Louisiana and Mississippi did their best to avert a worst-case scenario, there was still enough room to save more lives. Had the state authorities acted early perhaps more lives would have been saved. The state should have made also a better use of federal resources by requesting assistance to help with evacuations from the federal government. Failure to do this led to the overwhelming of state resources that were already inadequate. The recovery from the mass flooding in New Orleans was only possible because of the coordinated efforts of the federal government, neighboring states, and local agencies like the Red Cross.
Ebrahimji, A., & Garrett, M. (2020, August 30). Hurricane Laura was strong enough to reverse the flow of Mississippi River water. CTVNews. Retrieved from: https://www.ctvnews.ca/world/hurricane-laura-was-strong-enough-to-reverse-the-flow-of-mississippi-river-water-1.5085131
Lavery, K. (2009, October 30). Hurricane Katrina: Plans, decisions, and lessons learned. Voice of America. Retrieved from: https://www.voanews.com/archive/hurricane-katrina-plans-decisions-and-lessons-learned
Thomas, P. (2005, September 12). Exclusive: Were the warning signs of Katrina ignored? ABC News. Retrieved from: https://abcnews.go.com/GMA/HurricaneKatrina/exclusive-warning-signs-katrina/story?id=1117497
The United States. Executive Office of the President, Etats-Unis. Assistant to the President for homeland security, counterterrorism, Superintendent of Documents, President of the United States Staff, United States. Assistant to the President for Homeland Security & Superintendent of Documents Staff. (2006). The Federal response to Hurricane Katrina: Lessons learned. Government Printing Office.