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Hurricane Katrina: The Damage, The Costs, And The Human Failings

Katrina was the third-deadliest hurricane in the history of the United States, with a death toll of more than 1,800 people. In economic terms, Katrina ended up being the costliest natural disaster by far – costing more than $108 billion.

About Hurricane Katrina

In 2005 on August 29th, Hurricane Katrina made landfall as a Category 3 storm off the coast of Louisiana. What started as a tropical depression in the Caribbean waters on August 23rd soon evolved into winds of up to 120 miles per hour and Katrina became a Category 5 hurricane. At its worst, Katrina’s diameter stretched right across the Gulf of Mexico. 

On August 29th Katrina passed over the Gulf Coast and officials originally thought New Orleans had been spared; however, a levee broke in New Orleans and the low-lying city was soon inundated with surging floodwaters – ultimately overwhelming other levees. 80% of the city was underwater and the city was in crisis mode.

Due to the loss of life and the destruction that ensued, Katrina is still considered one of the worst storms in US history. Today, the effects of Katrina are still being felt in New Orleans and coastal Louisiana.

Why Hurricane Katrina Was So Devastating

There are several reasons why Katrina was so devastating, the least of which was the loss of 1836 lives – 1577 from Louisiana and 238 from Mississippi. Senior citizens accounted for more than half of these figures. 

While a mandatory evacuation had been ordered the previous day, many residents either could not or would not leave. They faced a city that was 80% underwater and many had to be rescued from rooftops. Looting occurred; there were shortages of food and potable water, and a public health emergency soon developed due to the absence of basic sanitation.

Hurricane Katrina was huge even before it made landfall. The storm surge of Katrina crested at 27 feet and impacted 93,000 square miles. Its powerful winds stretched up to 30 nautical miles and reached 75 nautical miles east of the center. Three-quarters of the 819 manned oil platforms in the Gulf of Mexico were evacuated, which reduced the production of oil by a third. Even though Katrina slowed when it hit land, most of the damage was done after it was reclassified to a Category 4 hurricane.

Damage Caused By Hurricane Katrina

The Impact on Humans and Pets

Hurricane Katrina’s impact on people and animals was devastating, to say the least. Statistics show that 770,000 residents were displaced because of the hurricane, which some estimate is more than the Great Depression’s Dust Bowl migration. Seventy-five thousand people returned to their homes only to find them completely destroyed. More than 1800 people lost their lives because of Katrina, and old age was a contributing factor. In Louisiana, 71% of people lost were more than 60 years of age, with half being more than 75 years. Sixty-eight people were abandoned in nursing homes, with 200 bodies unclaimed. 

Many thousands of people were reported missing after Katrina, and of course, the hurricane had a devastating effect on pets. More than 600,000 pets were either killed or made homeless after the storm. Many people refused to leave their pets behind and died as a result; in fact, almost 50% of people who chose to stay did so because they didn’t want to leave their pets. Other pets were locked inside and while some did survive, most succumbed to starvation. The uproar caused by people having to leave their pets resulted in the passing of the 2006 Pets Evacuation and Transportation Act. The Act states that both State and local officials must make evacuation plans and provide adequate shelter for pets.

Structural Damage and Insurance

While the damage caused by Hurricane Katrina cost a whopping $125 million, only $80,000 million of this loss was covered by insurance. Much of the damage was caused by flooding, which either completely destroyed or rendered uninhabitable more than 300,000 homes. A whopping 118 million cubic yards of debris was left in the wake of Katrina, which created a massive clean-up challenge.

The Economic Impact

According to Professor Bernard Weinstein from the University of North Texas, the true cost of Katrina was $250 billion, which is a combination of both the damage and economic impact. His estimate is $215 billion in uninsured losses and $35 billion in insured losses. The 9th Ward in New Orleans, which is a low-income, mostly uninsured area, experienced the worst flooding.

In the third quarter from July through September, the US economy grew 4.1%. In the fourth quarter, it fell to 1.7%, which is when production losses showed up – losses like gas pipe disruptions. The economy was able to shake this off, and the National Accounts of the Bureau of Economic Analysis revealed that by the first quarter in 2006 the economy returned to a strong 5.4% GDP growth rate.

The Effect on Oil Costs

US oil production was severely damaged by Katrina. When combined with Hurricane Rita, which followed soon after Katrina, 113 offshore gas and oil platforms were destroyed. Almost 20% of oil production was negatively affected, with 457 gas and oil pipelines damaged – oil spillage almost equaled the Exxon Valdez disaster. The result was that oil prices increased to more than $70 a barrel and gas prices topped more than $3 a gallon. Price gouging of more than $5 a gallon was reported, which caused the US government to release oil from its Strategic Petroleum Reserves. The impact of Hurricane Katrina is reflected in historical oil prices.

The Cause Of So Much Devastation

The path Katrina took was the cause of most of the devastation. Katrina’s storm surge revealed engineering inadequacies in levees in New Orleans, resulting in the hurricane completely destroying almost 170 miles of the 350-mile system. This led to 80% of the city becoming flooded, and it took many weeks for the floodwater to recede. In fact, some neighborhoods have yet to return to their pre-Katrina population levels. 

Flooding would not have been so devastating had the levees held. It’s been reported that not all levees were updated with concrete support pilings and some levees were simply not high enough. Others still were constructed on soil that crumbled with the flooding and some had floodgates that failed to close properly. Overall, more than 50 levees eventually failed before the storm subsided.

A decade later, the US Army Corps of Engineers acknowledged serious errors in the construction of the levee and flood-protection system. They cited lack of information, insufficient funding, and poor construction as reasons the flood system failed.

The Destruction of Hurricane Katrina

  • The port in New Orleans suffered $300 million in damage, even though one week later it reopened to ships. 
  • Tourism was also badly affected; the year before Katrina the city’s tourism industry welcomed 10.1 million visitors, generating $4.9 billion – in 2006 the city only received 3.7 million tourists.
  • Katrina also negatively affected Louisiana’s sugar industry. Damage to the industry amounted to $280 million, resulting in reduced production by 9%.
  • Louisiana was home to 50 chemical plants and produced a quarter of the nation’s chemicals. Many chemical plants shut down in advance of the storm but remained off-line until natural gas and power could be restored.
  • Katrina damaged or completely destroyed 16 of the many casinos along the Gulf Coast.
  • Oyster beds were completely damaged and the shrimping industry was adversely affected. Louisiana officials said both commercial and recreational seafood industries were devastated by Hurricane Katrina, estimating the economic impact reached $1.6 billion.

Human Failings

Ten years after Hurricane Katrina, then-President Barack Obama said that Katrina started out as a natural disaster but ended up a man-made disaster. It became a government’s failure to look out for its own citizens. 

Katrina exposed a range of deep-rooted problems, including difficulties with search and rescue efforts, controversies over the Federal Government’s response, and lack of preparedness for the hurricane. This especially referred to flooding in the low-lying city created by the city’s aging levees. The government’s response to Hurricane Katrina was so incompetent that not only did it allow the catastrophe to continue, it created a set of new and unnecessary problems. It certainly led to many more deaths and untold damage costs. Shoddy engineering of New Orleans’s levee system was also another culprit, later acknowledged by the US Army Corps of Engineers.

Comparing Katrina To Other Hurricanes

  • Hurricanes that cross the densely populated east coast typically cause the most damage, which is why the damage caused by Katrina was unusual.
  • Hurricane Harvey was the second most destructive hurricane, costing $125 billion. Dropping more than 60-inches of rain, Harvey hit in August 2017. It was a Category 4 storm that covered a third of Houston, Texas, in floodwaters.
  • The third worst Hurricane was Hurricane Maria in 2017, which was a Category 5 hurricane that devastated Puerto Rico, causing $90 billion in damages.
  • In 2012 the fourth-worst hurricane hit New Jersey and New York. In its wake, Hurricane Sandy left $70.2 million in damages. Sandy was actually a tropical storm, but it caused a lot of damage because it hit highly developed areas.
  • On September 7th, 2017, the fifth-worst hurricane hit Puerto Rico. Hurricane Irma was a Category 5 storm and did $50 billion in damages. When it hit Key West in Florida it was a Category 4, making it the largest ever Atlantic storm. For 37-hours the 185 mph winds were fed by 86-degree water, which is quite warm for the Atlantic. According to insurance firm Swiss Re, the damage would have reached $300 billion had Hurricane Irma hit Miami.

Because the atmosphere holds more moisture with warmer temperatures, it’s believed that global warming may create more hurricanes like Katrina. In addition, rising sea levels make Gulf Coast cities more vulnerable to flooding. And it’s predicted that hurricanes will linger longer because global warming stalls weather patterns in the Gulf region.

How Global Warming Made Katrina More Dangerous

There were three ways in which global warming affected the impact of Hurricane Katrina –

No. 1: Rising sea levels made flooding worse. The average global sea level rose 8.9 inches between 1880 and 2015, which is a lot faster than in the previous 2,700 years. And this pace is not slowing down – it’s picking up! The sea level rose 1.84 inches between the years 2000 and 2010 alone.

No. 2: The earth’s average temperature has increased by over 2-degrees Fahrenheit, or just over 1-degree Celsius. Temperatures of the ocean’s depths are increased by global warming, and this contributes to the ferocity of a hurricane. It also means fewer winds around the storm and more humidity in the air, thus creating greater rainfall during a hurricane.

No. 3: Since 1949 we’ve seen hurricanes lingering in place longer, with their pace slowing by 10%. Weather patterns are slowed down by climate change because the jet stream is abated. This is the north-south surging band of wind high in the atmosphere that blows from west to east at speeds of up to 275 miles per hour. Driven by contrasting temperatures between temperate zones and the Arctic, the jet stream slows down because the Arctic is warming much quicker than the rest of the globe. The result is that Gustav and other storms are capable of hovering over an area, thus creating more damage.

The Future of Storms

MIT models show that climate change will ultimately create more storms that intensify just before making landfall. At the moment they occur once per century, but by the year 2100 they will occur every 5 to 10 years. A study carried out at Princeton University revealed that, by the year 2035, hurricanes will become more frequent. They predict 32 super-extreme storms with winds over 190 miles per hour, which is more powerful than a Category 5. Notably, some meteorologists are now asking for a Category 6 designation.


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