Hurricane Katrina was one of the deadliest hurricanes ever to hit the United States. An estimated 1,833 people died in the hurricane and the flooding that followed in late August 2005, and millions of others were left homeless along the Gulf Coast and in New Orleans.
The tropical depression that became Hurricane Katrina formed over the Bahamas on August 23, 2005, and meteorologists were soon able to warn people in the Gulf Coast states that a major storm was on its way. By August 28, evacuations were underway across the region. That day, the National Weather Service predicted that after the storm hit, “most of the Gulf Coast area will be uninhabitable for weeks…perhaps longer.”
The day before Katrina hit, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin issued the city’s first-ever mandatory evacuation order. He also declared that the Superdome, a stadium located on relatively high ground near downtown, would serve as a “shelter of last resort” for people who could not leave the city. (For example, some 112,000 of New Orleans’ nearly 500,000 people did not have access to a car.) By nightfall, almost 80 percent of the city’s population had evacuated. Some 10,000 had sought shelter in the Superdome, while tens of thousands of others chose to wait out the storm at home.
Katrina initially formed about 200 miles (322 km) southeast of the Bahamas on Aug. 23, 2005, as a tropical depression, according to the NOAA. A well-defined band of storm clouds began to wrap around the north side of the storm’s circulation center in the early morning hours of Aug. 24. With winds of about 40 mph (65 kph), the storm was named Tropical Storm Katrina.
By the time it made its way to southern Florida on Aug. 25, Katrina was a moderate Category 1 hurricane. While it caused some flooding and casualties — two people were killed — during its first landfall, it appeared to be just another hurricane in an active hurricane season. Katrina weakened after passing over Florida and was reclassified as a tropical storm.
But, once over water again, Katrina stalled beneath a very large upper-level anticyclone that dominated the entire Gulf of Mexico, and rapidly gained strength. Katrina re-intensified into a hurricane on Aug. 26, and became a Category Five storm on Aug. 28, with winds blowing at about 175 mph (280 kph). The storm turned north toward the Louisiana coast. The storm weakened to a Category 3 storm before making landfall along the Louisiana-Mississippi border on the morning of Aug. 29 with sustained winds of 120 mph (193 kph).
Katrina weakened to a Category 1 hurricane after moving inland over southern and central Mississippi. It was downgraded to a tropical storm about six hours later just northwest of Meridian, Mississippi, and became an extratropical low on Aug. 31. It was finally absorbed by a frontal zone later that day over the eastern Great Lakes, according to the NOAA.
Many people acted heroically in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The Coast Guard, for instance, rescued some 34,000 people in New Orleans alone, and many ordinary citizens commandeered boats, offered food and shelter, and did whatever else they could to help their neighbors. Yet the government–particularly the federal government–seemed unprepared for the disaster. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) took days to establish operations in New Orleans, and even then did not seem to have a sound plan of action. Officials, even including President George W. Bush, seemed unaware of just how bad things were in New Orleans and elsewhere: how many people were stranded or missing; how many homes and businesses had been damaged; how much food, water and aid was needed. Katrina had left in her wake what one reporter called a “total disaster zone” where people were “getting absolutely desperate.”
For one thing, many had nowhere to go. At the Superdome in New Orleans, where supplies had been limited to begin with, officials accepted 15,000 more refugees from the storm on Monday before locking the doors. City leaders had no real plan for anyone else. Tens of thousands of people desperate for food, water and shelter broke into the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center complex, but they found nothing there but chaos. Meanwhile, it was nearly impossible to leave New Orleans: Poor people especially, without cars or anyplace else to go, were stuck. For instance, some people tried to walk over the Crescent City Connector bridge to the nearby suburb of Gretna, but police officers with shotguns forced them to turn back.
The rescue and recovery efforts following Katrina became highly politicized, with federal, state and local officials pointing fingers at one another. Critics blamed an aging and neglected federal levee system and a slow state and local response following the disaster for the high loss of life and damage. Many residents did not heed initial warnings to evacuate, putting a severe strain on rescue operations.
After initially receiving praise from then-president George W. Bush, Michael D. Brown, the director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), was forced to resign, as was New Orleans Police Department Superintendent Eddie Compass. Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco and New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin came under severe scrutiny for not ordering mandatory evacuations sooner. Blanco did not seek re-election in 2007. Nagin left office in 2010. In 2014, he was convicted of bribery, fraud and money laundering committed while in office before and after Katrina and is now serving a 10-year sentence, according to the New Orleans Times-Picayune.