On this dayAug 29, 2005

Hurricane Katrina Devastates Gulf Coast

Image | Paul Morse/The White House

On August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina made its second landfall, devastating Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and other portions of the Gulf Coast. The storm proved to be one of the most destructive disasters in the nation’s history, leaving more than $100 billion in damages, approximately 1,800 deaths, and more than 1.5 million people displaced from their homes.

In the days and weeks that followed, focused coverage of the aftermath exposed lacking emergency response plans and inadequate infrastructure. Federal authorities were soon widely criticized as unprepared for the situation and indifferent to the plight of the largely poor and black residents making up the storm’s most vulnerable and needy victims.

New Orleans’ poorest residents, most of whom were African American, primarily lived in areas of the city built at or below sea level – which were at high risk of flooding. The order to evacuate New Orleans was not made until the day before the storm’s landfall and did not include sufficient plans to evacuate the poor, elderly, or sick. Poverty also played a large role in preventing people from evacuating earlier, as many lacked access to a car or other transportation; money to cover gasoline, hotels, and other necessities; or the ability to miss work without losing their jobs and risking economic devastation.

When the storm hit, damaged levees gave way to rushing water, devastating poor and black neighborhoods, including the majority-black Lower Ninth Ward. As news cameras recorded the heavily flooded city of New Orleans, desperate people languished on their rooftops and in makeshift boats, crying out for help that did not come quickly.

Critics accused the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) of failing to respond to needs on the ground, and instead being hampered by its own chaos and dysfunctioning bureaucracy. Relief supplies and other donations poured in from around the country, only to be confiscated or rejected by the agency. “Temporary” FEMA trailers became a symbol of relief failure, as people were still living in the temporary housing for years after the disaster.

Only about one-third of Lower Ninth Ward households returned to New Orleans after Katrina. As late as 2016, New Orleans was home to 96,000 fewer black people than before the storm.

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