The devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 is etched in the minds of many Americans. The storm, one of the deadliest and costliest in U.S. history, caused widespread destruction and chaos, particularly in New Orleans. In the years since the storm hit the city, it has become a symbol of the dangers of climate change as well as the urgent need for action to protect vulnerable communities.
"I was here in Hurricane Betsy, I was a teenager," said Mona Lisa Saloy, New Orleans native and professor at Dillard University. "I remember diving off the porch to swim. I remember the bodies of dogs and people floating. But we still had a total of nine and a half feet during Katrina—post-Katrina flooding because it didn't flood on that day, the levees broke the next day. And the travesty of that is it is the fault of the Army Corps of Engineers."
One day before the storm made landfall, Mayor Ray Nagin of New Orleans declared a mandatory evacuation. "It was hotter and more humid that day," Saloy says. "It was unlike anything I'd felt. And it was compellingly hot." Along with the alarming weather, it was a spiritual premonition that caused Saloy, who usually never evacuates, to leave with her dog, her cousin Dwight, his wife Connie, and her neighbor Ruth.
"My cousin Connie had a dream and when Connie gets a dream or a feeling or a message we act on it," Saloy says. "She's never wrong. And she saw the water coming and she said we had to go."
She continued: "So, I called Miss Ruth, and she said 'You just told me we were staying.' I said 'Miss Ruth, Connie, and Dwight said we got to go'. So, we packed up, took the dog and that was it."
Too heartbreaking to leave, too expensive to stay. More than 802,000 homes are at risk of climate disaster—mostly in the South.
Disaster aid budgets are being stretched thin, leaving many people needing to elevate or sell their homes in limbo.
Given the tight-knit nature of the New Orleans community, many residents who evacuated the area during a hurricane made sure to bring their neighbors along, if possible. For those who decided to stay, it was not uncommon to host "hurricane parties" with friends and family. These gatherings were a way for residents to come together and support one another during difficult times.
Significant issues with disaster preparedness at all levels
When Nagin declared a mandatory evacuation on the Sunday morning of August 28, 2005, there wasn't enough time to evacuate everyone. The city lacked the necessary resources to provide transportation for those without a vehicle.
In a previous interview with FRONTLINE, Michael Brown, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) director at the time, shared that by Saturday, he "at least wanted a mandatory evacuation of New Orleans and the surrounding parishes."
The storm's aftermath exposed deep flaws in the country's disaster preparedness and response systems, while also highlighting issues of race, class, and inequality. Approximately 200,000 residents, including the elderly and impoverished, did not evacuate.
According to a national poll conducted by Pew Research Center a week after the storm, Black New Orleanians were highly critical of the federal government's relief efforts. In the poll, 66 percent of Black respondents believed that "the government's response to the situation would have been faster if most of the victims had been white."
While appearing on Countdown with Keith Olbermann, Rev. Al Sharpton shared the same sentiments as Black New Orleanians. "I feel that, if it was in another area, with another economic strata and racial makeup, that President Bush would have run out of Crawford a lot quicker and FEMA would have found its way in a lot sooner," he said.
The Lower 9th Ward, a historically Black, low-income neighborhood situated near the levees, was profoundly impacted by Katrina due to its vulnerable location and limited resources.
The response to Hurricane Katrina was widely criticized for being slow and ineffective, particularly in the immediate aftermath of the disaster.
Many people were left stranded without food, water, or medical care for days after the hurricane hit, and the federal, state, and local governments were widely criticized for their lack of coordination and preparation.
"We were abandoned," Patricia Thompson, a New Orleans evacuee, told the Select Committee Hearing panel investigating the response to the storm in 2005. "City officials did nothing to protect us. We were told to go to the Superdome, the Convention Center, and the Interstate Bridge for safety. We did this more than once. In fact, we tried them all every day for over a week."
The Danziger Bridge shootings serve as a tragic example of how law enforcement failed to protect and serve citizens during a time of crisis.
"We saw buses, helicopters, and FEMA trucks, but no one stopped to help us. We never felt so cut off in all our lives. When you feel like this you do one of two things: you either give up or go into survival mode. We chose the latter. This is how we made it. We slept next to dead bodies, we slept on streets at least four times next to human feces and urine. There was garbage everywhere in the city. Panic and fear had taken over."
In the investigation of Hurricane Katrina's response, a Senate report concluded that leadership failures at the local, state, and federal levels worsened the storm's damage. The report specifically mentioned New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin and Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco for failing to effectively communicate the city and state's needs to the federal government before the storm hit, exacerbating the situation.
The Committee found that "while Governor Blanco stated in a letter to President Bush, two days before landfall, that she anticipated the resources of the state would be overwhelmed, she made no specific request for assistance in evacuating the known tens of thousands of people" who had no means of transportation.
However, the failures of the levees and flood walls that were protecting New Orleans, a city surrounded by water, is what caused 80 percent of it to flood on August 29. In particularly hard-hit areas, like the Lower 9th Ward, the water reached depths of up to 15 feet. Forty years earlier, during Hurricane Betsy, the ward suffered the same outcome due to the levee breaching, proving that the city was not properly equipped to withstand something they knew was capable of occurring.
Some New Orleans neighborhoods went without trash pickup for over a month following Hurricane Ida. Climate change is making post-disaster waste management an urgent problem.
Many residents have believed that predominantly Black neighborhoods were left to suffer from flooding, by letting the water in, to save other white, wealthy parts of the city.
In the following weeks after the storm Colonel Terry J. Ebbert, the city's head of homeland security, concluded that "there's nothing out there that can be saved at all" while looking down at the Lower 9th Ward from a Blackhawk helicopter—with the neighborhood and much of the city still underwater.
The destruction of project housings, St. Bernard, B.W. Cooper, Lafitte, and C.J. Peete further exacerbated the housing crisis in New Orleans and disproportionately affected low-income communities, particularly communities of color, who relied on these affordable housing options.
A community committed to resilience
"I was fortunate to return to the city two weeks right after the flooding," Saloy says. "Only businesses were allowed. And I run myself like a business as an author and folklorist. My new book had just come out. The ink was not dried on my Ph.D. yet."
She describes the city as a "ghost town" out of the old Wild West films—the irony of a city that embraces liveliness and celebration in everyday life, was left desolate and in ruins in the aftermath of Katrina.
"Everything was dried up. You couldn't hear a bird. You couldn't even hear a mosquito. No cats, no dogs. It was just dry and dead. You didn't see any green flora at all. We lost millions of trees. So that's part of the reason why we have so much heat in cities because there's too much cement."
Saloy hails from the 7th Ward, a predominantly Black neighborhood and one of the oldest in New Orleans with a rich history dating back to the 1800s. The 7th Ward was home to free people of color, jazz musicians, and notable residents of New Orleans, including civil rights activist A.P. Tureaud.
Saloy shares that her neighborhood didn't receive the aid they needed, but Lakeview, a predominately white and affluent neighborhood, did. "It was supposed to be $150,000 across the board. I don't know anybody who got that much money. We got $2,000 off the top and that was to just go in a hotel somewhere and that was it."
She reveals that many of her neighbors were overwhelmed with the process of reporting losses while dealing with an unrealistic deadline. She says that many people were fighting contractors who were paid to rebuild but never completed the job, some even disappearing with the money.
"With all of that trauma, we were threatened that if we didn't do certain things by a certain time, they were going to take our property, just confiscate it," she reflects.
She notes that the neighborhood has undergone significant changes since Katrina, which have altered the way the community interacts, especially considering the number of individuals who have not returned.
"My dad was a master carpenter," she says. "He'd draw the plans, he'd frame the house, and that's how one family added on to their house. Everybody would come, you just had to make a big pot of red beans and rice and have some beer—hot or cold, it didn't matter. Everybody would come and pitch in. But when everybody's gone, you don't have that. We lost a lot of craftsmen."
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As a result of watching her community change and wanting to protect it, Saloy began attending neighborhood meetings for a couple of years to learn how to start a neighborhood association. In 2012, with the help of her neighbors, they formed the 7th Ward Neighborhood Association to improve the quality of life across the community, promote active citizenship, and foster families.
Saloy, who was a Ph.D. student during Hurricane Katrina and lost most of her dissertation and materials in the flood, says that now, she uses her phone to prepare and categorize.
"You can take pictures of everything, and insurance can use that."
When they catch her outside, passersby sometimes inquire why she hasn't "given up" on the neighborhood—one that not only grapples with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina but also gentrification.
"It's not in our DNA," she says. "It's not. We can't afford to give up. I love that we still have that resilience."
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The devastating storm that hit New Orleans in 2005 killed nearly 2,000 people and displaced thousands more. For those who survived Hurricane Katrina, the trauma they still carry reveals the long shadow of environmental racism on Black mental health.
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