When Hurricane Katrina made landfall Monday, Aug. 29, 2005, as a
Category 3 hurricane, I--together with most of the nation--watched in
horror as flood waters rose, levees failed, and the city of New
Orleans was threatened with annihilation.
It was the deadliest and most destructive storm of the season, one of
the five deadliest in the history of the United States. Its tragic
consequences were exacerbated by the location of the city, the failure
of the complex system of levees that had been constructed to protect
it, and failure to close some of the floodgates.
Mandatory evacuation orders were issued on Aug. 26, but many
residents were unable to escape due to health problems or lack of
resources. The storm surge breached levees in 53 places, submerging
80% of the city. Some areas remained submerged for weeks.
Federal disaster declarations were issued for an area as large as the
United Kingdom. Almost 900,000 people lost power, though power
companies seemed more interested in their shareholders than in those
who depended on their services.
Many people worked heroically to rescue trapped victims, while
others were conspicuous by their absence. Coast Guard units from as
far away as Los Angeles responded, rescuing people from roofs and
trees. Residents paddled back and forth in rowboats to bring in
survivors. 1,823 were confirmed dead and damages totaled $31.2
billion, the costliest in US history.
It was the worst civil engineering disaster in U.S. history. At fault
were the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which failed to maintain the
integrity of levees; the Federal Emergency Management Agency
(FEMA), which was unprepared for the disaster despite warnings;
some members of the New Orleans Police Department, who deserted
their posts; and some residents and outsiders, who saw the storm as
an opportunity for exploitation.
Hundreds of thousands of New Orleans residents were left
unemployed by the hurricane. More than 70 countries, ranging from
Kuwait to Bangladesh, promised aid. Six years later, much remains
to be done.
Hurricane Katrina has many lessons for all of us--about the
importance of maintaining the infrastructure, about disaster
preparedness, about evacuation procedures, and about rebuilding.
But the most important lesson is about the value of people--all
people--and the importance in a democratic society of insuring that a
much greater effort is made to provide for the poor, the sick, the aged
and the weak. If we would claim to be Christian, if we would claim to
be a caring people, surely we can do no less.
Flooded freeways, the eye of the storm,
the storm surge topping the levees and
Katrina from below (clockwise from