Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast in 2005, dispersing a city of 500,000, demolishing hundreds of miles of coastline, and causing roughly $81 billion in property damage. It ranks among the worst natural disasters of the twenty-first century, which in only fifteen years has seen such extreme weather events as the 2010 Haitian earthquake, Iran’s Bam earthquake in 2003, and the 2004 tsunami that devastated coastal areas of Indonesia, India, Sri Lanka, and Thailand.
But perhaps the most memorable aspect of the Hurricane Katrina disaster is the United States government’s profound failure to protect and serve citizens in the wake of the storm. President George W. Bush’s lethargic response to the hurricane intensified the trauma of the disaster, prolonging suffering and uncertainty for months after the storm.
In a striking example of neglect, tens of thousands of storm refugees were left for days in the unimaginable filth of the Louisiana Superdome, a football stadium that had suddenly become a “refuge of last resort” for stranded residents.
Bush’s slow and uneven response to the leveling of a predominately black city provoked Kanye West’s famous accusation — “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” — during a televised fundraiser for Katrina victims.
Racist responses to the disaster were in fact widespread; mainstream media coverage repeatedly depicted black storm victims as looters rather than survivors, while drumming up hysteria about supposedly crime-prone New Orleans residents taking refuge in cities like Houston.
In this brief primer, Jacobin describes the hurricane, its aftermath, and what went wrong.
What happened on August 29, 2005?
At 6:10 AM, Hurricane Katrina made landfall in the small Gulf Coast city of Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, about fifty miles from New Orleans. There was immediate flash flooding, with wind speeds exceeding 125 miles per hour.
By 9:00 AM the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans — an overwhelmingly black neighborhood where about a quarter of the population lived on less than $10,000 a year — was already under six to eight feet of water.
By 11:00 AM, water levels in St. Bernard Parish, another New Orleans neighborhood, reached ten feet (for more than two months after the storm, every single home in this 30,000-person area was officially designated as unlivable by the parish president). At 2:00 PM, New Orleans officials confirmed breaches at three canal levees, including the vital 17th Street Canal.
By 3:00 PM, emergency lines were saturated with calls from people trapped in homes or at the tops of trees, and it was clear that residents had been killed during the storm. In a heartless response to the growing crisis, New Orleans Homeland Security Director Terry Ebbert remarked, “Everybody who had a way or wanted to get out of the way of this storm was able to. For some that didn’t, it was their last night on this earth.”
Before the end of the day, President Bush declared a state of emergency in Louisiana, Alabama, and Mississippi. Roughly 8,000 National Guard troops were dispatched to aid in the recovery, along with 1,000 Homeland Security workers.
Why weren’t people prepared?
The days before the hurricane were a swirl of chaotic activity, both political and meteorological.
The storm had formed over the southeastern Bahamas on August 23, and gained intensity during the next day as it moved eastward towards Florida, where it became Tropical Storm Katrina. Katrina lost intensity as it passed over the Florida peninsula on August 25, but then rebounded and steadily gained strength when it reached the Gulf of Mexico. It quickly became clear that Katrina was on course to potentially devastate the entire Gulf Coast region, including New Orleans, a city of about half a million people.
Louisiana governor Kathleen Babineaux Blanco declared a state of emergency, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) — destined for notoriety in the weeks and months that followed — began preparing a response. The next day New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin called on city residents to evacuate, and declared mandatory evacuations for several low-lying parishes. But many poor New Orleans residents were unable to evacuate on their own, lacking the means to travel or a place to go.
The storm grew more fierce overnight, and on the morning of August 28 Nagin ordered a mandatory evacuation of the entire city, saying, “We’re facing the storm most of us have feared.”
At noon, the Louisiana Superdome was opened as a “refuge of last resort”. Because of bottlenecked traffic leading out of the city, many were unable to evacuate, so significantly more people than anticipated sought shelter at the Superdome. 20,000 people arrived to take refuge — the National Guard had only provided enough water and other provisions to support 15,000 people for three days.
Around the same time, George Bush made a last minute phone call to Governor Blanco from his Texas ranch where he was enjoying the twenty-seventh day of a thirty-day vacation to confirm the evacuation of New Orleans had begun. But it was too little too late.
Katrina touched down early the next morning, demonstrating in a matter of hours just how hopelessly inadequate the storm preparations had been. Testifying before Congress months later, FEMA field officer Marty Bahamonde described the carnage:
Ground transportation into the city was virtually non-existent because of the massive, widespread flooding . . . Search and rescue missions were critical as thousands of people stood on roofs or balconies in flooded neighborhoods. It was getting dark and the city was without power.
I believed at the time, and I still do today, that I was confirming and explaining the worst-case scenario that everyone had always talked about regarding the City of New Orleans.
Who was affected?
The hurricane displaced more than a million people, the largest internal displacement in the United States since the Civil War. The wave of human movement that followed the destruction in New Orleans rivaled the Dust Bowl migration of the 1930s, but at a much faster pace — whereas it took almost a decade for millions of American farmers to move from their decaying farms in the Midwest, over a million Gulf Coast residents left their demolished homes in the span of just two weeks.
The immediate death toll — from drowning, electrocution, and other storm-related trauma — is often estimated to be around 1,800 people, though that number is uncertain.
In New Orleans, 68 percent of the almost 700 storm casualties were black — a number that mirrors the demographics of the predominantly black city, in which black residents comprise 67 percent of the population. But in some areas the death rate for black residents was as much as four times higher than that of non-black residents. The areas where the most bodies were recovered were low-lying, flood-prone neighborhoods with high black populations.
In all, fifty-three levees were breached in New Orleans, submerging as much as 85 percent of the city and prompting legal action against the Army Corps of Engineers, which had built the levee system. More than 800,000 homes in Louisiana were left without electricity as the storm cleared.
Poor residents of New Orleans and the entire Gulf Coast bore the brunt of the disaster and its aftermath, experiencing the hardship of homelessness and displacement without meaningful state support. In the weeks and months that followed Katrina, working-class residents of New Orleans saw their city transformed into a literal police state, where movement was monitored and storm victims were marked as criminals and delinquents by hostile police and National Guard forces.
Private security firms like Blackwater — infamous for its role in the American occupation of Iraq — also arrived in New Orleans, bringing well-armed mercenaries who patrolled the streets with assault rifles, threatening the lives of black storm survivors.
Many of Katrina’s most desperate victims ended up in the Louisiana Superdome, where violence, disease, and exposure were constant threats to health and safety. For FEMA field officers like Marty Bahamonde, the lack of adequate food and water was the most pressing issue:
Each day it was a battle to find enough food and water to get to the Superdome. It was a struggle meal to meal because, as one was served, it was clear to everyone that there was not enough food or water for the next meal.
Without air conditioning and proper sanitation, the Superdome soon became unlivable. And as conditions continued to worsen outside, the already over-crowded stadium only became more tightly inhabited.
While we battled food and water issues, rescue missions continued, more and more people arrived at the Superdome, and the medical conditions of many at the Superdome were in rapid decline; many people were near death.
When discussing the deterioration of the Superdome before Congress months after the storm, Bahamonde suddenly abandoned his strictly empirical account of the hurricane’s aftermath. As he described the heartbreaking results of his agency’s outrageous failure to provide for the residents of New Orleans, his testimony suddenly took a more emotional turn:
It is well known what happened over the next several days, most of it real, some of it hyped and exaggerated by the media, but all of it tragic. I was and still am today most haunted by what the Superdome became. It was a shelter of last resort that cascaded into a cesspool of human waste and filth.
Imagine no toilet facilities for 25,000 confined people for 5 days. Women and children were forced to live outside in 95-degree heat because of the horrid smell and conditions inside. Hallways and corridors were used as toilets, trash was everywhere, and amongst it all, children — thousands of them.
It was sad, it was inhumane, it was heart-breaking, and it was so wrong.
Many inhabitants of the Superdome were later relocated to the Houston Astrodome and from there to temporary residences provided by FEMA and municipal governments. But faced with the city’s sluggish response, some New Orleans residents took matters into their own hands.
Jabbar Gibson was only twenty years old when he commandeered an abandoned school bus and drove seventy passengers from New Orleans to Houston, passing a hat to buy diapers, gasoline, and other necessities.
Upon arriving in Houston, his passengers were turned away from the Astrodome after being told that all space was reserved for some 23,000 Superdome refugees expected to arrive later that day. Gibson himself was arrested on charges of “extreme looting” for stealing the school bus.
Shalinda Clark, a thirty-four year old mother, rolled up to the Astrodome about an hour after Gibson, having commandeered a bus of her own. She was transporting her own family plus about a dozen other residents of her New Orleans housing project.
Outside New Orleans, poor residents of the rural coastline were also hit hard.
The storm left many rural communities along the Gulf Coast almost entirely demolished and destroyed billions of dollars in property, including thousands of mobile homes and fishing boats. The storm swept across the entire state of Mississippi, killing as many as 300 people and destroying an estimated 90 percent of all structures within half a mile of the coast. All eighty-two counties in Mississippi were declared national disaster zones, with forty-seven requiring full government assistance for massive rebuilds.
The storm debilitated Mississippi’s $1.6 billion riverboat gambling industry, pushing casino barges inland and demolishing their piers. This represented a significant loss of wealth for the state — along Mississippi’s economically depressed coastline, riverboat gambling is a vital shunt for badly needed tax revenue, and floating casinos employ close to 200,000 people.
In September 2005, unemployment in Mississippi’s coastal counties spiked to almost 25 percent. Following the hurricane, legislation was passed extending legal gambling to many inland locations and drawing casinos away from the precarious Gulf Coast, resulting in accelerated unemployment rates for already impoverished coastal counties.
Katrina destroyed forty libraries in Mississippi, many of them in rural town centers. Among the libraries destroyed was the Reconstruction-era free library in the Gulf Coast town of Biloxi, which was washed away along with about 90 percent of the town. Surveying the damage done to the small hamlet, the mayor of Biloxi referred to Katrina as “our tsunami.”
Among the Biloxi residents displaced by Katrina were thousands of Vietnamese-Americans who had settled in the town during the Vietnam War, attracted by the promise of work in fisheries along the Biloxi coast. Many fisherfolk — already living in conditions of extreme precarity — saw their livelihoods destroyed by the storm as boats washed ashore, docks were demolished, and the normally calm fishing waters of the Gulf filled with garbage and debris. Many Vietnamese fisherfolk leff Biloxi after the storm.
Vietnamese-Americans constitute a major population demographic along the entire Gulf Coast, with almost 25,000 ethnic Vietnamese living in Louisiana, many of them working in the fishing industry.
In the wake of Katrina, Vietnamese fishing communities organized their own recoveries and struggled to rebuild with severely limited government assistance. After the BP oil spill temporarily devastated fishing along the Louisiana coast in 2010, community organizations have expanded to oppose corruption and advocate on behalf of coastal residents, including many Vietnamese fishers.
Almost 600,000 Alabama residents were left without power after Katrina. The small shrimping village of Bayou la Batre suffered particularly catastrophic damage, made worse by the corrupt opportunism that went hand-in-hand with the multi-million dollar recovery effort. A report submitted to the UN in 2010 listed southern Alabama as the region most severely neglected during the governmental response to the storm. Storm survivor Paul Nelson described the state of Alabama’s fishing communities after Katrina, saying:
Coden [an unincorporated Alabama fishing village] has never seen so many people pass away in such a short time . . . trying to survive in the FEMA campers, and hoping to see their homes rebuilt. My mother Hilda Nelson died after living in a FEMA camper for over a year and hoping for assistance that never came.
The Alabama coast remains one of the poorest areas of the United States. And the condition of Alabama’s poor is made more desperate by the state’s conservative leadership — three people die each day in Alabama because of the governor’s refusal to extend Medicaid.
Recently, the Alabama Fisheries Cooperative has formed in Bayou la Batre to organize a community response to the “sickeningly unjust governmental policies that have followed in the wakes of Hurricane Katrina and the BP oil and toxin dispersant.”
Although no American Indian reservations were directly affected by the storm, significant numbers of native people lived along the Gulf Coast, and many were taken in by reservation communities further inland after their homes were destroyed.
What went wrong?
On August 31, President Bush returned early from his vacation in Texas to address the vast humanitarian crisis left by the hurricane. Although he chose not to stop in New Orleans (or any other municipality affected by the storm), he did instruct the crew of Air Force One to fly low over the Gulf Coast so he could see the storm damage below.
The governmental response to the storm had already been lackluster, and the weeks that followed were characterized by government incompetence and neglect.
Federal recovery efforts were marked by racism — for example, FEMA provided trailers to 63 percent of the residents of St. Bernard Parish, a predominantly white area leveled by the flood, but only to 13 percent of the predominantly black Lower Ninth Ward.
The recovery effort was also hamstrung by a convoluted system of tiered power that resulted in Federal, state, and local governments clumsily dodging responsibilities while working at cross purposes.
FEMA was lambasted as incompetent and bloated in a report from the Department of Homeland Security, and by voices outside the government, particularly for its failure to provide housing to tens of thousands of people whose homes had been destroyed, sometimes distributing hard-to-use hotel vouchers with short life spans instead.
Who benefited from the recovery?
In January 2006, after months of bungled recovery efforts, President Bush gave his State of the Union address, saying, “In New Orleans and in other places, many of our fellow citizens have felt excluded from the promise of our country.”
He was right. For hundreds of thousands of New Orleans residents — and for the millions of poor hurricane victims along the Gulf Coast — Hurricane Katrina was a potent reminder of their government’s skewed priorities.
But for some, Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath was not a crisis but an opportunity. There were millions to be made by private security firms like Blackwater, whose outsized role in enforcing martial law in New Orleans during the weeks of post-hurricane blackouts has been well-documented.
Real estate speculation exploded in the region as millions of dollars of government money were allocated to redevelopment efforts in New Orleans and elsewhere, further irrigating an already corrupt city leadership structure with hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribe money.
Last year, former New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin was convicted of twenty counts of corruption for accepting bribes from developers in the aftermath of the hurricane. Developers that later confessed to offering bribes received more than $5 million in city contracts.
Republican heavyweight and former Vice President Dick Cheney also made sure to look out for himself and his billionaire colleagues in the storm’s immediate aftermath. The day after the storm he diverted emergency crews from restoring power to two rural hospitals, demanding they service electrical substations for the Colonial Pipeline, a diesel pipeline that connects Texas to the Northeast.
The emergency workers were outraged by these skewed priorities, but they were forced to comply after their manager received a personal call from the vice president.
The Koch brothers — conservative oil magnates who donated half a million dollars to Republican candidates, including Bush, during the previous election cycle — had acquired a majority share in the pipeline just two years earlier. Halliburton, Cheney’s own energy corporation, was tightly connected to the pipeline as well — the pipeline’s treasurer also served as Halliburton’s senior vice president.
But perhaps the most audacious maneuver of the nation’s business elite was to entirely privatize the New Orleans school district, firing all 4,700 public school teachers and turning the city into “the nation’s preeminent laboratory for the widespread use of charter schools.”
Naomi Klein describes this process in her book The Shock Doctrine, calling the erasure of the New Orleans public school system “an educational land grab”:
In sharp contrast to the glacial pace with which the levees were repaired and the electricity grid was brought back online, the auctioning off of New Orleans’ school system took place with military speed and precision. Within nineteen months, with most of the city’s poor residents still in exile, New Orleans’ public school system had been almost completely replaced by privately run charter schools.
Before Hurricane Katrina, the school board had run 123 public schools; now it ran just 4. Before that storm, there had been 7 charter schools in the city; now there were 31.
Labeling this cynical opportunism “disaster capitalism,” Klein lays the blame for the seizure of the New Orleans school district on Milton Friedman — “grand guru of the movement for unfettered capitalism.” In Katrina’s immediate aftermath, the ninety-three year old neoliberal economist penned an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal from his deathbed, writing, “Most New Orleans schools are in ruins, as are the homes of the children who have attended them. The children are now scattered all over the country. This is a tragedy. It is also an opportunity to radically reform the educational system.”
Arne Duncan, then the US secretary of education, expressed a similar sentiment, calling the hurricane “the best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans.”
But the demolition of the city’s public school infrastructure and its replacement with a network of for-profit charter schools was not good for students, who faced the possibility of being excluded from discriminatory schools with no legal mandate to accept all pupils.
Nor was it good for parents, who had to crisscross greater New Orleans researching a convoluted school system with no relationship to the re-settlement patterns of the city. Nor was it good for the thousands of public school teachers who lost their jobs, saw their union busted, and their workplaces destroyed in one fell swoop.
A parallel public school district called the Recovery School District (RSD) was formed to compliment the charter schools, but it was grossly underfunded and overburdened. Charter schools routinely dumped hundreds of under-performing students on the RSD at the end of testing cycles. RSD students sat in classes of more than forty pupils and were served microwaved frozen meals at lunchtime.
Since 2005, proponents of charter schools have attempted to replicate the New Orleans coup d’etat in school districts like Chicago, undermining public education, busting teachers unions, and accelerating resurgent segregation in the United States.
Can it happen again?
Extreme weather events like Hurricane Katrina are a prominent feature of our changing climate; just six years after Katrina doused New Orleans in early morning floodwater, New York City received a similar wakeup call in the form of Superstorm Sandy.
Capitalism encourages the illogical and disorganized pursuit of profit at a breakneck pace; in a certain sense, weather events like Katrina are the inevitable result of an energy-obsessed economy that rewards the scraping away of mountains, the siphoning of underground oil, and the uncorking of earth-warming greenhouse gases.
The blame for global climate change lies squarely on the elite architects of the global economy, but climate change-related catastrophes disproportionately affect the poor and powerless.
Yet despite the dreariness of this ecological prognosis, we should oppose the line of doomsday thinking that argues New Orleans must be abandoned as a modern-day Atlantis.
Instead we must fight for a society in which communities are given the resources to protect themselves from catastrophic disaster. In moments of both crisis and calm we must organize ourselves together, not just to provide aid and solidarity for one another when our government proves itself unable or unwilling, but also to build a broader challenge to capitalism and work towards a society based not on maximizing profit but on satisfying human needs.