Hurricane Katrina was one of the largest, deadliest, and destructive hurricanes in history, but its destruction was hardly typical. As Katrina grew from a tropical storm in the Atlantic, she crossed Florida as a Category 1 hurricane. As she stormed across the Gulf of Mexico she grew in strength to a Category 5 hurricane. Concern grew in New Orleans as the storm approached, but as she neared landfall it looked like they would be spared the worst. As Katrina made landfall she was downgraded to a Category 3 hurricane and the eye of the storm would bypass New Orleans to the south and east. Gulfport and Biloxi Mississippi would bear the brunt of the storm and heavy damage was inflicted on southwestern Mississippi including small towns like McComb.
Just as the people of New Orleans were thinking they had dodged the bullet their worst fear happened, flood! It is widely known that New Orleans is below sea level. The only portion of New Orleans that is above sea level is the French Quarter, which is the original portion of the city. A series of levee’s were built along the Mississippi River and Lake Pontchartrain to protect the city from flooding. The threat of a levee giving way and a resulting flood is not new. I lived in New Orleans in 1975-76 and one of the first words of advice that I received was to get a second floor apartment, have food and supplies stored upstairs, and leave the city when a hurricane comes because “if the levee breaks New Orleans will be flooded.”
Since the City of New Orleans lies mostly below sea level, a canal system was built to drain water from the city into either Lake Pontchartrain, a bay area of the Gulf of Mexico named Lake Borgne or into the coastal wetlands. The Inner Harbor Navigation Canal (IHNC) simply known as Industrial Canal is a navigable canal that was built to directly connect Lake Pontchartrain to the Mississippi River. The Mississippi River Gulf Outlet (MR-GO) Canal connects the Industrial Canal to the Gulf of Mexico. The MR-GO Canal carries water along the southern border of East New Orleans into the coastal wetlands to the southeast.
As Katrina was building in the Gulf she grew to a very intense Category 5 hurricane and even though she was downgraded to a Category 3 by landfall she was pushing a very large storm surge ahead of her. The storm surge quickly raised the water level of Lake Borgne east of New Orleans and pushed a 16 foot wall of water through the Rigolets Pass and into Lake Pontchartrain, which lies to the north of New Orleans.
As waters rose in Lake Borgne it flooded the coastal wetlands (a natural barrier that protects the coast line by absorbing flood waters and slowing hurricane winds) the rising water breached the eastern levee walls of the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet Canal (MR-GO Canal) and sent rising water up the canal towards New Orleans. Along the southern edge of east New Orleans the MR-GO levee was breached in 20 places sending floodwaters into area of east New Orleans. As a 25 foot wall of water surged over the western walls of the MR-GO levee, floodwaters surged into St Bernard Parish and completely flooded the suburb of Chalmette.
As the levels of Lake Pontchartrain rose, floodwater backed up into the drainage canal system and the levees were compromised. Water from the massive storm surge caused major breaches the levee walls of the London Ave. Canal, 17th Street Canal, and the wide Industrial Canal. Waters from the 17th Street Canal breach flooded portions of Metairie, the breach of the London Ave. Canal sent floodwaters into Gentilly and the Mid-City, and two major breaches of the wide Industrial Canal sent floodwaters into the Bywater and Lower Ninth Ward sections. Floodwaters from the breaches in these three major canals eventually flooded 80% of New Orleans. Fortunately, there were no breaches of the levees along the Mississippi River.
Property damage caused by Hurricane Katrina was worse in the coastal areas of Louisiana and Mississippi. The Louisiana coastal town of Buras was completely obliterated and the beachfront towns of Mississippi were flooded to over 90% in hours. Hurricane winds annihilated beach front property and caused major destruction to the larger towns and cities. Direct damage to New Orleans was from hurricane winds that were in the Category 1 or Category 2 strength. Thousands of homes and businesses sustained roof damage, including the Superdome. Windows were blown out of high rise buildings and especially hard hit was the Hyatt Regency New Orleans which had most of its windows blown out on the north side. The major damage to structures in New Orleans and its suburbs was a direct result of the flooding.
In areas where the flooding was most severe, 6-15 feet, the houses made of brick remained basically intact but the interiors were destroyed. The houses constructed of wood and had a pier and beam foundation suffered much worse. Many wood houses collapsed from the pressure of the floodwaters, many floated off their foundations and rammed neighboring houses. As the water receded and the sun came out, mold became a concern.
Thousands of vehicles were either, crushed by the floodwaters, floated onto the rooftops of houses, or were simple abandoned.
Chalmette faced an additional danger; the storm surge breached the Murphy Oil storage tanks and contaminated the soil. The dirt had to be literally steam cleaned to return it back to safe conditions.
Two days before Katrina hit New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin issued a voluntary evacuation order many were reluctant to leave so the next day Mayor Nagin issued a mandatory evacuation of the city and President Bush made a televised appeal for residents to leave the city. In the largest evacuation ever, 90% of the people fled New Orleans. The next problem New Orleans faced was that the people didn’t come back.
By the end of 2005 the population of New Orleans was 50% of what it was pre-Katrina. Five years later 30% of the population still had not returned. Communities became virtual ghost towns with abandoned houses that numbered in the tens of thousands. Hospitals and schools closed and many never reopened because of the depopulation of New Orleans.
Was it dangerous being in New Orleans after Katrina? Let me put it this way, before Katrina New Orleans’ murder rate was 10 times the national average. Then after Katrina you have a city that is mostly deserted, many areas that were still dark and without electricity, little to no basic necessities like gas, food, water. Criminal activity, violence, and looting became a serious problem. Murder continued unabated by the waters of Katrina. There was a murder at the Superdome (person had his head cut off) and at the Convention Center among the refugees. Sniper fire was reported across the city and the sounds of gunfire were frequent and common. Put in the mix that most police officers were busy with rescue efforts and to make things worse, one third of the New Orleans Police force deserted the city.
I had the unique opportunity to visit the city five months after Katrina. When I visited, it was still hard to find a restaurant or even a fast food place open, when you did the menus were abbreviated. The city was largely deserted and any store that was open had to close by curfew at 6 p.m. My youngest son Keith was employed by the security firm Wackenhut and a member of their Global Response Team. He was called up the morning Katrina hit Louisiana and remained there for 2 years. He worked as Field Supervisor for the New Orleans office and so I got the grand tour. I guarantee you there were many places, including downtown after dark I would not have gone by myself. Keith was my tour guide, chuffer, and personal bodyguard.