Hurricane Katrina, Ten Years Later: How a Country that Bore Witness Still Plays Business as Usual

, senior analyst, Climate & Energy Program | August 17, 2015, 8:00 am EDT
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Ten years ago, this country was thunderstruck by the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. As the death toll, the damage, the costs, and the human suffering mounted, we promised we would learn from this and never let it happen like this again. So, have we?

Katrina damaged much of the U.S. Gulf Coast and devastated the city of New Orleans. Storm surge as high as 27.8 feet struck Mississippi and Louisiana.

Importantly, the storm was just the beginning of the disaster. The levees that protect New Orleans failed 50 times due to inadequate foundations, erosion, and overtopping. Overall, about 80% of New Orleans flooded, up to depths of 20 feet. It would take 43 days to drain the flood waters. All of this was exacerbated by inadequate planning and preparedness that led to woefully insufficient evacuation, search and rescue, and public safety procedures.

Overall, 1,833 lives were lost in the storm and immediate aftermath. Over 400,000 were displaced. New Orleans lost over half of its population.


New Orleans’ Lower 9th Ward, post Katrina. Photo: NOAA

10 years since…

By 2014, New Orleans’s population had only rebounded to 76% of its pre-Katrina size. The 2010 census recorded a vacancy rate of 25%, most of which is concentrated in flooded neighborhoods. The National Flood Insurance program paid $16.3 billion in claims, while private insurance paid an additional $41.1 billion. Official federal relief and recovery expenditures total more than $137 billion and damage to the economy totals $148 billion (2012 dollars).

There are bright spots in the story of recovery. In some ways, New Orleans is a more functional city, with better governance and civic engagement including the establishment of professionalized Flood Protection Authorities over the old levee boards. In August 2010, New Orleans completed its Master Plan, and in May 2015 it passed a Comprehensive Zoning Ordinance. Prior to Katrina the city did not have a Master Plan and its Zoning Ordinance lacked teeth, which added to the confusion and controversy during the rebuilding effort after Katrina. Another success is the establishment of the City Assisted Evacuation Plan. Meanwhile, the state of Louisiana has engaged scientists and stakeholders to generate a comprehensive Coastal Master Plan that strives to think long term, and includes sea level rise.

But all the great deltas of the world are under acute threat, and ours, which is both sinking from lack of sediment and facing rising seas, is no exception. We have understandably chosen to dig in and hold on, and good people are working hard to make it work, and to make the right long-term decisions. But there are strong indications that the reality of sea level rise and disaster risk is harder than we’re forcing ourselves to face.

Low-balling sea level rise in a high-risk region

As an example, I must cite again the State of Louisiana’s 2012 Coastal Master Plan—a landmark 50-year plan, praiseworthy in many ways, to restore the coast and reduce risk.

The plan is based in part on what the state calls a “moderate” scenario of sea level rise (SLR), namely a 10-inch increase by 2062 above 2009 levels. The Master Plan looks at local land subsidence (sinking) separately from sea level rise in these projections, so it’s not fair to compare this rate with localized rates from NOAA and the U.S. National Climate Assessment (e.g., 24 inches by just 2050, including subsidence). But if we compare this 10-inch increase to NOAA’s moderate (intermediate high) global SLR projection, we see that a 10-inch increase can be expected globally by 2040, more than two decades earlier.

The Master Plan also includes a “less optimistic” scenario of 17 inches by 2062, which I would characterize as perfectly optimistic, since NOAA’s scenario moderate scenario reaches 17 inches roughly a decade earlier. It makes one wonder how much of a voice Louisiana scientists had in the process.

To be fair, the Master Plan notes that recent science will require them to revisit their projections in the future. But some locals I’ve spoken with are frustrated that the most serious of the three scenarios was left out of state communications about the “hard choices” Louisiana residents must make. So it’s more than fixing what goes into the process; it’s also allowing the results to come out.

NOAA’s intermediate high and high scenarios factor in the loss of land-based ice, at differing rates. None of us like what we see, but we need to work with the best available science. Source: NOAA/Parris et al. 2012

NOAA’s intermediate high and high scenarios factor in the loss of land-based ice, at differing rates. None of us like what we see, but we need to work with the best available science. Source: NOAA/Parris et al. 2012

By 2062, the difference in land lost between the moderate and less optimistic scenarios is nearly 1,000 square miles. And I’m suggesting there are more square miles not accounted for. All of those square miles matter to people. Find them on a map and you’ll see people live there, people who have already been through terrible times. But people on the Gulf Coast of Louisiana would presumably prefer to know (and many of them already do), that even if the Atlantic never brews another hurricane, they’re unlikely to be able to stay indefinitely in their homes.

By 2062, the difference in land lost between the moderate and less optimistic scenarios is more than 1000 square miles. Provided improved sea level rise projections are used, the 2017 Master Plan will identify a substantially larger area of loss. Source: LA 2012 Coastal Master Plan (LINK)

By 2062, the difference in land lost between the moderate and less optimistic scenarios is more than 1000 square miles. Provided improved sea level rise projections are used, the 2017 Master Plan will identify a substantially larger area of loss. Source: LA 2012 Coastal Master Plan

This 50-year plan has a price tag of over $50 billion dollars, which the state will be hard-pressed to pay and with which the federal government will be asked to help. As a country, we must be all for getting down to the business of preparedness, and all for finding ways to pay for it. That’s one of the most important promises we made to ourselves, post-Katrina. But we should insist on serious, lasting preparedness efforts, and investments that are truly viable over time, so we can keep such promises.

Until the Coastal Master Plan reflects best available science, it’s not in a position to deliver on those, and real preparedness for the next storm will continue to elude Louisiana.

Good intentions, bad follow-through, a touch of amnesia

In our lives, when someone close to us dies or suffers serious illness or injury, we promise ourselves that we’ll honor them by doing better. As a nation, our impulse is the same. We want to do better. After 100 people died in 2003 in The Station nightclub fire, for example, the National Fire Protection Association enacted new code provisions and crowd management requirements in similar venues.  It’s our follow-through that, as a nation, is often lacking, though, no matter how devastating the tragedy.

So how have we honored the losses and suffering of Katrina, nationally? The federal government has taken some major and important steps in the last couple of years. As have certain cities and states, perhaps most notably, New York State and NYC, though clearly in the wake of Sandy.

But the default, our reality, is still business as usual along much of our coasts. And business as usual—that is, acting as though the sea hasn’t risen and won’t keep going—is risky business.

Let’s consider New Jersey, which has the memory of Katrina and the punishing first-hand experience of Sandy to guide its coastal decision making. Just last month, New Jersey adopted major changes to its Coastal Zone Management Rules that, according to the New Jersey Association for Floodplain Management, “do not consider the effects of sea level rise; incorporating sea level rise into the permitting process is critical if it is to meet its goal of not putting the inhabitants of the New Jersey shore at risk.” This follows on a trend of rapid re-development in highly vulnerable places, such as the Barnegat Peninsula.

On the West Coast, one group’s mapping points out the multitude of construction projects proposed for flood-prone land in San Francisco. Reuters reports that Galveston, Texas, approved 81 out of 85 applications to build closer to the beach than allowed by state law, despite its long history of hurricanes and susceptibility to sea level rise.

This kind of analysis has yet to be done for Miami, but on a recent trip there, I heard multiple times that of the more than 40 new major, high-rise constructions already underway—additions that will transform the area skyline—none is being built to account for sea level rise. Whether 40 or 4, this represents magical thinking in the Magic City. The last real devastation Florida saw from a major hurricane was Andrew, in 1992. Thankfully. But in that relative quiet, coastal Florida has gained over a million people. Are the nearly 5 million people living along the Florida seashore prepared for a big storm?

Honoring Katrina

If you’re reading this in a coastal community, chances are you can look out your window and see ways that we are unprepared for sea level rise and unprepared for the next storm. I can. We can’t prepare overnight but we’ve had 10 years since Katrina and not enough progress to show for it. People died in that storm. People endured harrowing days. People’s lives were forever shattered. And people struggle mightily still to recover.

The Atlantic will send more storms our way, and studies suggest they may grow stronger still in the years ahead. Those storms can strike almost anywhere on the Gulf and East Coasts. We should honor the experience of Hurricane Katrina with real adaptation action, and real climate mitigation, and never forget a chief reason: that next storm is coming, and there will be real people in its path.


Photo: AP

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  • Chris McLindon

    The most misunderstood thing about Katrina was captured by Tim Dixon,, 2006

    “Parts of St Bernard and Orleans Parishes west of Lake Borgne are experiencing subsidence rates of more than 20 mm/yr, including the levee system along the MRGO canal. Parts of this levee system were breached during the flooding associated with Hurricane Katrina, and this could be explained by the correlation we observe between the location of breach points and the high rate of subsidence beneath these levee sections. Our subsidence estimates are probably minimum values considered over the lifetime of the levees, given that subsidence was most rapid in the first few years after their construction in the 1960s. Levee failure may have resulted from overtopping because the levees were too low — data collected after the storm indicate that water levels exceeded those expected by 0.9–1.7m. Alternatively, the high subsidence rates we observe might reflect active faulting or a weak, easily compacted substrate, promoting failure at or near the levee base.”
    The Master Plan not only woefully underestimates rates of subsidence, it fails to recognize that faulting is causing hot spots of subsidence that have equivalent RLSR rates up to 9 times the rate of global sea level rise. Several proposed major Master Plan projects are located in hot spots of subsidence similar to those recognized by Dixon Failure to recognize the geologic activity in these areas will have catastrophic effects much greater than sea level rise – just as it did in Katrina

    • Erika Spanger-Siegfried

      Thanks for this input, Chris. And sorry to be slow to respond. Vacation and all. I was aware of the existence of hotspots but not the faulting mechanism — really interesting.

  • Ezra Boyd

    I think a big part of this discussion is that there was so much blame going around for the Katrina disaster that the role of SLR got lost in the debate. Even when you filter out all the noise and spin and make a list of verified, legitimate causes, SLR is hidden below a number of other factors.

    • Erika Spanger-Siegfried

      That makes perfect sense. So, at what point will the visible experience of SLR (including subsidence) start to swamp those other factors. Seems it can’t be too far off, given projections.

  • The master plan does deal with subsidence separately, but it underestimates it even more than it low balls sea level rise. The combination of subsidence and the lowest IPCC estimate of sea level rise by 2100 (less than foot) still raises relative sea level for the Mississippi Delta by nearly a meter. This leaves New Orleans as an island, miles from shore, and the Mississippi River snaking more than 100 miles through levees rising as hills from open water. (Which assumes no hurricanes in LA’s future.) For more, see: Blum, M. D. & Roberts, H. H. (2009). Drowning of the Mississippi Delta due to insufficient sediment supply and global sea-level rise. Nature Geoscience, 2(7), 488–491.

    • Erika Spanger-Siegfried

      Thanks for weighing in. I don’t envy those responsible for crafting this
      plan and they seem to intend to use more realistic SLR and subsidence rates in the 2017 update. It will be interesting to see what the options look like — and for that matter, the viability of some recent investments in defense measures — when new projections are used.