August 20, 2005 Hurricane Katrina wreaks havoc on Gulf Coast
On this day in 2005, Hurricane Katrina, the most destructive hurricane ever to hit the United States, makes landfall on the U.S. Gulf Coast, near New Orleans, Louisiana. Katrina, which formed over the Bahamas on August 23, was the third major hurricane of a particularly severe 2005 season. The storm caused massive devastation in and around the city of New Orleans and major damage elsewhere in Louisiana and along the coasts of Mississippi and Alabama.
On August 28, Katrina briefly achieved Category 5 status—becoming the second Category 5 storm of the season—and that day, the National Weather Service predicted “devastating” damage to the Gulf region. Although New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin then ordered a mandatory evacuation of the city, an estimated 150,000 people who either could not or would not leave stayed behind. The next day, Katrina made landfall as a Category 4 storm, bringing with it sustained winds of 145 mph with gusts of up to 175 mph and massive storm surges that overwhelmed the city’s levees, flooding 80 percent of the city, as well as many of the outlying neighborhoods, or parishes.
Without electricity or basic supplies, tens of thousands of people sought shelter in the New Orleans Convention Center and Louisiana Superdome. At both sites, conditions rapidly deteriorated amid overcrowding and a lack of supplies. Almost unbelievably, it took more than two days for a full-scale relief effort to be launched. In the meantime, frustration mounted as stranded residents suffered from heat, hunger, crime and a lack of medical care. As news networks broadcast scenes from the devastated city to the world, it became obvious that a vast majority of the victims were African-American and poor, leading to difficult questions among the public about the state of racial equality in the United States. The federal government and President George W. Bush were roundly criticized for what was perceived as their slow response to the disaster. The head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) resigned amid the ensuing controversy.
Finally, on September 1, an evacuation of stranded residents to the Astrodome in Houston, Texas, began. Military convoys arrived with supplies and the National Guard was charged with halting lawlessness. As efforts began to collect and identify corpses, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began fixing the damage to New Orleans’ levee system; the repairs were completed on September 6, allowing crews to begin pumping water out of the city.
Hurricane Katrina was the most costly natural disaster in American history, with damages of more than $80 billion. In all, more than 1,800 people died, 1 million more were displaced and 400,000 lost their jobs as a result of the disaster. Even one year later, despite efforts to rebuild the city, large parts of New Orleans remained heavily damaged and thousands remained homeless or unemployed.