Politics of Disaster- Katrina and Louisiana


Published Aug 25, 2015 8:49 PM by The Maritime Executive

On August 25, 2005, Hurricane Katrina made landfall as the largest and third most powerful hurricane to ever hit the U.S. The Category 5 storm killed more than 1,800 people and displaced another 400,000. The blame for the death and delayed response has been placed at the feet of everyone from Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin and President George W. Bush.  But, culpability cannot be pointed to any person for a natural disaster of this magnitude.

On August 27, as Katrina’s strength increased, Nagin held a press conference to announce a voluntary evacuation of the city. Katrina, at the time, was just a category 3 hurricane, but New Orleans was directly in its path and the levees that guarded the city  had only been built to withstand at category three storm.

Should have Nagin decreed a mandattory evacuation?  National news sources, however, speculated that his delay due to tourism. In fact, tourism generated about $5 billion per year and it is assumed that business owners might have sued the city for the mandatory evacuation if nothing had happened.

While thousands of the city’s citizens were without cars and means of transportation, speculation that a mandatory evacuation may have saved thousands from not dying during the storm and flooding. But, as the mayor issued the  voluntary evacuation,he suggested that the poeple look to carpooling with friends and family to get to safe locations.

Meanwhile, Nagin did not issue the mandatory evacuation order until the next day on August 28 after a National Weather Service said Katrina’s winds had strengthened to 175 miles per hour. A category 5 storm is considered to be 157 miles per hour or greater.

As the Category 5 storm barreled down on the Louisiana coast with New Orleans in its path, the citizens of the city just had a few hours to get to safety. And, Louisiana did not have the infrastructure to endure such a huge storm or even rescue survivors caught in the devastation.

The federal government could not provide aid or even respond to a disaster unless the state governor requests assistance. At the time, Kathleen Blanco was Louisiana’s governor and she encouraged its citizens to evacuate and placed a request with the federal government to issue a state of emergency. But, rather than placing a phone call to President Bush, she simply submitted legal documents to the feds for a state of emergency. While submitting documents followed protocol, to many it seemed to lack a sense of urgency. 

Around 3 PM, on August 29, two major flood-control levees were breached and about 80% of New Orleans was submerged in waters up to 20 feet while Katrina impacted more than 90,000 square miles and destroyed $151 billion in multi-state property damage. As the National Weather Service reported total structural failure in New Orleans many of its citizens  had no way to flee to safety.

New Orleans was now under water and search and rescue should have been the highest priority. But, it took nearly four days (September 2) for Blanco to complained to the White House that Louisiana had still not receive Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) assistance.  Both Bush and FEMA Director, Michael Brown, said they had never had received explicit information about what the state in assistance. And, instead of reacting to the obvious destruction, FEMA is said to have simply waited.

Blanco rejects claim by the feds that she did not ask for specific aid in her letter to Bush asking for 40,000 troops, food and water, buses and amphibious vehicles as well as mobile morgues.

Violence and looting broke out in the city of New Orleans by the time FEMA arrived and the agency decided not put its employees at risk and rejected an offer by the Department of the Interior for trucks, vans, boats, aircraft and about 400 officers.

Meanwhile, Louisianans continued to wait as the largest hurricanes ever hit the U.S. laid waste to the state and state.