New Orleans
A Disaster Waiting to Happen

Historical events are long in coming and long in lasting, where a single explanation is inadequate to explore the constellation of factors that results in any particular event or development. Complex problems call for complex solutions although the current state of politics and media in this country undermines such labored efforts. The problems of New Orleans did not begin with Hurricane Katrina nor will they end there. The events of late August and early September 2005 and efforts to rebuild the city are a microcosm of the blessings and curses of contemporary America.

  1. Race
    New Orleans was a city of the slave
    south, central to its economic growth and strength. Long before the United States took possession in 1803, blacks were placed in a subservient position. And as much of the last 150 years has demonstrated, emancipation has not resulted in equality. Events specific to New Orleans and general to the nation have allowed for the continuation of racism. Discrimination in housing, education and economic opportunity has all led to a large number of impoverished African Americans in the city. Pockets of tolerance and black affluence exist as well.

    Residential patterns established in the beginning of the twentieth century persist to this day. The onset of Jim Crow in the last quarter of the nineteenth century was marked by a series of laws that concretized the separation of the races. These statutes represented the codification of custom that prevailed during the antebellum period. Former slaves made many gains during Reconstruction after the Civil War. The Jim Crow
    laws were a more formal mechanism to prevent black attainment and undercut Constitutional guarantees of equality.

    After 1900, the Progressive understanding that problems of sewage, drainage and garbage removal would need city-wide solutions met this institutionalized racism. The result was an uneven distribution of services. As new technology allowed the city to expand within its boundaries and create suburbs (Figure 17), residential discrimination limited the access of blacks to many areas. At each juncture of development, progress met racism and the result is that many of New Orleans' black residents are poor and have limited access to infrastructure opportunities such as good schools and adequate health care.

    This portion of the black population is epitomized by the residents of the Lower Ninth Ward (Figure 12) and (Figure 17). This section of the city was created in the 1920s as the result of the construction of the Industrial Canal (Figure 16) which connected Lake Pontchartrain to the Mississippi River. Residents of the Lower Ninth were separated from the rest of the city, and it was several years before bridges were built to rectify the situation. A high percentage of its residents are on welfare, and household income averages below $30,000. The Lower Ninth has the highest crime rate in a city known for its high crime rate. It is also the most prone to flooding due to environmental decisions made over the decades. The area receives little help from the city. Although the Lower Ninth represented only 3% of New Orleans' pre-Katrina population, many of its residents were unable to leave and provided the most striking images of the horrors of the hurricane.

  2. Economy

    In a city like New Orleans, race often serves as a proxy for class. Just as the proportion of blacks has increased, so too has the number of those in poverty. On the eve of Katrina, New Orleans had a dreadful public education system, a decreasing tax base, high crime rate, and little inducement for middle class whites or blacks to make the city their home. The "white flight" of the previous four decades to surrounding suburbs has only worsened the situation. Only the arrival of manufacturing and commercial enterprises would alleviate the problem, but this solution is unlikely given the absence of those institutional supports that would provide the necessary services. The petrochemical industry is vital to the region's economic success but the environmental impact of its operations makes New Orleans more vulnerable to floods and hurricanes.

  3. Environmental dangers

    The reality of both floods and hurricanes has existed since the city's inception in 1699 but construction in recent decades seems to ignore potential hazards or even increase them. Until 1900, most residents lived along the natural levees (Figure 15) but as drainage allowed for construction below sea level, more people were residing in flood prone areas. Structural barriers, such as levees, created a false sense of security. If these levees broke, the damage would be fierce. Increased residential construction along Lake Pontchartrain (Figure 20) has put even more residents in danger. Waters that breach the levees will not only flood the area but also the escape routes. The Army Corps of Engineers plan to build pumps and floodgates along the lakefront was sabotaged by local officials. In addition, rising sea levels in all coastal areas increases the vulnerability of cities such as New Orleans. Likewise, economic activity has eroded the natural wetlands that serve as a buffer to storm surges throughout the Gulf of Mexico region.


At 10 A.M. on August 28, the National Weather Service Field Office in New Orleans issued a catastrophic damage warning, predicting home destruction, a shortage of clean water and spillage of materials from petrochemical factories. The voluntary evacuation order from the previous evening was now made mandatory. By the next day, close to a million people left New Orleans and surrounding suburbs. Approximately 20,000 to 25,000 people remained in the city along with
550 National Guard troops.

Hurricane Katrina passed east of New Orleans on August 29 (Figure 21) . The hurricane was bad. Winds were category 4 and 5, and tidal surges were 5. Although the hurricane missed the city, the storm surges caused breaches of many of the city's levees and by August 31, 80% of the city was flooded, some under as much as 15 feet of water. Two-thirds of the flooding came from problems at levees at three canals: 17th Street, Industrial, and London Avenue (Figure 22) .

90% of the city's population evacuated New Orleans. Most of those who remained were poor, elderly and/or sick. Those who were stranded in their homes, made their way to rooftops and it was these images that captured national attention. The Louisiana Superdome had been designated as the refuge of last resort but it too was damaged, and by
August 30, Louisiana Governor Blanco ordered the evacuation of those refugees to the Houston Superdome. All of southeastern Louisiana was declared a disaster area.

There was no clean water or electricity. The destruction of most communication networks further hindered the coordination of rescue efforts. Local news was broadcast from neighboring cities. Most of the major roads in and out of city were damaged. The only route out was Interstate 10, Westbound (Figure 20). Bridges heading east had collapsed and the causeway over Lake Pontchartrain was for emergency traffic only.

The bad situation was worsened by hysteria caused by an absence of information and the theatrics of New Orleans' mayor, Ray Nagin. Soon enough, reality matched this rhetoric as crime and violence plagued the city. The police were involved in rescue efforts and did not maintain order. Some had left the city and there were even claims that some officers participated in criminal activities. A vigilante mood spread quickly as residents resorted to their own resources for both rescue and defense measures. By August 31, the police made maintaining order their first priority. A curfew was imposed. Mayor Nagin begged Washington for more National Guard troops and 6500 arrived on September 1.

A public health emergency was declared for the entire Gulf coast. Prolonged flooding led to dehydration, food poisoning, Hepatitis A, cholera, tuberculosis, and typhus. The normal September heat and humidity in the area only worsened the situation.

  1. Promises

    Immediately after Katrina, politicians and business leaders began speaking of Katrina as an opportunity to correct generations of mistakes and neglect. Lofty rhetoric punctuated the promises of rebuilding and restoration. Assurances came that poverty would be eliminated and the city would be safe. Some suggested shrinking the size of New Orleans and abandoning the most flood prone areas. President Bush waited a week to come to New Orleans and many interpreted his delay in recognizing the catastrophe as indifference or incompetence or maybe both. His promises of doing "whatever it would take" to restore the city were received warily.

  2. Planning

    Plans to fix the city came quickly but revealed little true understanding of the long term nature of the problems New Orleans faced. It was not clear who was ultimately in charge of the recovery. Although the federal government promised financial support, there was little understanding about coordination with state and local authorities.

    Donald Powell, a former chair of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation with no experience in disaster management, represented Washington. His primary role was to be Bush's goodwill ambassador and deflect any criticism of the president. He had no real authority and his main task was to referee between others who were making proposals.

    Planning did occur on the state and local levels, although there were no guarantees what, if anything, would be implemented. Mayor Nagin created the Bring New Orleans Back Commission, comprised largely with individuals who had access to President Bush. Governor Blanco formed the Louisiana Recovery Authority whose 23 members were to provide advice on rebuilding and distributing federal funds. Neither the state or city commission had any authority except to make recommendations but in a city desperate for leadership and direction, every pronouncement was studied microscopically.

    One aspect that was central to any rebuilding effort was the revision of federal flood insurance guidelines. FEMA had last designated those areas eligible in 1984. Certainly this revised, ‘objective' assessment would provide a useful guide about which areas should receive funds for rebuilding. In the early months, there was a great deal of discussion about "shrinking the footprint" of the city, a politically charged notion that while unpleasant might represent a genuine solution to the flood ravaged city. New Orleans would finally employ the "land use" solution rather than the structural precautions of levees, floodgates and canals to protect the

  3. Limitations

    Despite both the proclamations of various politicians and the dire need, recovery was hampered from the beginning. New Orleans faced the problem of many coastal areas, increasing vulnerability to rising sea levels. In the case of New Orleans, this general problem was compounded by a lack of coordination and a failure of leadership. No one was willing to make difficult or unpopular choices. President Bush was clear that he did not want the recovery to be an exercise in central planning but instead be left to the locals. He also did not want the Federal government to go into the real estate business. The President rejected the plan to purchase flood damaged property at 60% of pre-Katrina value, consolidate these holdings, and then sell the land to developers.

    More than 200,000 homes were destroyed and the federal government established criteria that restricted many from the recovery money. The homes had to have lacked federal flood insurance, been owner occupied and outside of the established floodplain. State and local officials were shocked by the administration's excuse that it did not want to set up another federal bureaucracy. By February 2006, there was no federal money in Louisiana for rebuilding. The state's reputation for political corruption did not help generated trust in Washington.

    Even FEMA abdicated its responsibility by not changing those areas eligible for flood insurance. When the agency released its new flood insurance guidelines in February 2006, it merely required new or rebuilt structures to be placed three feet higher, woefully inadequate to storm surges that often reached 15 feet. Projects for the Army Corps of Engineers are funded by earmarks, one of the bastions of a federal financial system that works against big picture solutions and encourages pork barrel legislation with members of Congress battling for specific funds. Many consider water safety a national security issue but the federal government continues in its piecemeal, ad hoc approach to natural disasters such as floods and wild fires.

  4. Responsibility/blame

    An enormous amount of energy was spent ascertaining blame for the flooding of New Orleans. The facts are not complicated. The city survived the hurricane but the storm surge that followed taxed an inadequately built levee system which was breached in 20 spots (Figure 22) . Several factors contributed to these breaches — faulty design specification, incomplete sections, and substandard construction.

    For anyone who was familiar with the city and its flood protection system, none of this came as a surprise and warnings of exactly what occurred after Hurricane Katrina passed had been predicted for several years. The structures were inadequate to the task of protecting the city and flawed in their construction. As the storm surge rose, the force of the rising flood waters inside the canal bent walls outward creating a small gap between the walls and their earthen foundation. Then the water surged into the gap, pressing the walls even further until they broke through a layer of weak soil piled up against the sides.

    At the next level of responsibility is a state and federal government that did not adequately prepare for the very real problems that would ensue from the storm surge. Again the problems that followed the storm surge were hardly a surprise. Three previous studies predicted precisely the chain of events that caused the 17th Street Canal
    flood wall to fail, including studies conducted by the Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) itself.

    Although the Corps is to blame for faulty construction, they were frequently the victims of budgetary restrictions and obstacles from state and local politicians who did not fulfill their obligations. The Louisiana Congressional delegation steered Corps funds towards projects that had little to do with flood protection. They even prevented a Corps plan to build pumps and flood gates along Lake Pontchartrain that would have prevented much of Katrina's flooding.

    The most extraordinary thing is that similar problems are plaguing the reconstruction efforts currently underway. The Corps is spending more time and money in Louisiana than any other state but much is going to wasteful pork barrel projects. Scientists want to return to natural solutions, letting the river behave without human interference, rebuilding land and rearranging the navigation at its mouth. This could be accomplished by "undoing" much of what humans have done — fill in oil and gas canals, constrict the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet and pump sediment back into ridges and barrier islands. In short, allow marshlands to perform natural flood protection. These restorative measures are opposed by the petrochemical and seafood industries.

    The larger question is who is responsible to fix New Orleans, a city more than its locality. We doubled the size of the nation just to acquire this most important port in 1803. Is it still vital to our interests? Is it the job of the federal government to make safe the inherently dangerous? The story of the twentieth century is that Washington has assumed these responsibilities, in everything from setting environmental standards to providing emergency relief. But when we think about the problems that really confront New Orleans — poverty, dangerous placement, crime, inadequate health care, poor education, corruption - all long in coming and maybe impossible to fix, when do we say enough? Or have we already said it by our indifference?

  1. What are the real problems that currently face New Orleans?
  2. How did Hurricane Katrina exacerbate these problems?
  3. Hurricane Katrina is not the worst storm in United States' history. Why were its effects so devastating?
  4. What might make the recovery of New Orleans go better?
  • Baum, Dan. "Letter from New Orleans: The Lost Year." The New Yorker. August 21, 2006.
  • "Effect of Hurricane Katrina on New Orleans." Wikipedia
  • Fitzpatrick, Tim. "New Orleans, Hurricane Katrina, and the Oil Industry." Environmental June 30, 2006.
  • Grunwald, Michael. "The Threatening Storm." Time Magazine. August 1, 2007.
  • Lemann, Nicholas. "Insurrection." The New Yorker. September 26, 2005.
  • Lewis, Peirce. New Orleans: The Making of An Urban Landscape. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2003.
  • Schwartz, John. "Engineers Faulted on Hurricane System." The New York Times. July 11, 2007.
  • Warrick, Jody and Whoriskey, Peter. "Army Corps is Faulted on New Orleans Levees." The Washington Post. March 25, 2006.
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