Hurricane Katrina: Natural Disaster and Man-Made Urban Policies

Today’s post comes from Callie Belback from the National Archives History Office.

While natural disaster is something that cannot be predicted, it is something that can be prepared for. Many cities are planned and built with natural disaster consequences in mind. However, the history of New Orleans shows that while these ideas may have been relevant, they were not central to urban planning policies. In August 2005, Hurricane Katrina made landfall in southeastern Louisiana and Mississippi. Flooding in New Orleans, largely a result of fatal engineering flaws and urban design, caused billions of dollars of damage and the loss of many lives. 

Contrary to expectations, the older homes in the wealthier neighborhoods, such as the French Quarter and the Garden District, remained dry, while the homes in the low-lying, more modern neighborhoods were completely destroyed. In the 20th century, the city’s expansion policies created conditions ripe for flooding disaster. 

In the 1930s, the U.S. Government offered millions of dollars in federal incentives to encourage homeowners to build their homes in lower lying land. The higher ground land near the Mississippi River had already been developed, and the city’s growing population needed to move north, closer to Lake Pontchartrain. During this time, the Federal Home Loan Board Bank Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (FHLBB) provided low-interest long-term mortgage loans to homeowners unable to procure financing through normal channels. FHLBB created this map, which outlines the different New Orleans neighborhoods and their varying levels of desirability. The map shows that the neighborhoods farther north, surrounding Lake Pontchartrain, were on average deemed more desirable than the land bordering the Mississippi.

In 1965, Hurricane Betsy ripped through New Orleans. Like Hurricane Katrina, it caused untold damage to the city. As a consequence, the U.S. Government offered disaster aid—and federal subsidies more broadly. The Army Corp of Engineers was tasked with building a flood protection system surrounding the city. In 1968, Congress created the National Flood Insurance Program. While this was meant to protect homeowners, it only enabled lawmakers to loosen regulations, and the program incentivized even riskier residential construction. 

In the 1950s, in partnership with New Orleans local elite, the Army Corp of Engineers started construction on a channel that would enable ships to enter New Orleans directly. The channel, later named the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet, cut a large swath through the natural marshland that had shielded the city and neighboring areas from flooding. The construction of other shipping channels and oil canals rendered the city even more vulnerable to flooding. The Army Corp of Engineers’ flood protection system (started in the 1930s) remained unfinished all the way up to 2005.

On August 28, 2005, the National Weather Service issued a warning that Hurricane Katrina, a storm that began off the coast of the Bahamas, was heading directly toward Louisiana. The then mayor of New Orleans, Ray Nagin, issued a mandatory evacuation order. More than one million Louisiana residents fled. Flooding from Hurricane Katrina caused as many as 50 levees to breach. Seventy-seven percent of New Orleans and almost all of St. Bernard Parish, the county directly east of the city, was under water. The damage caused much of New Orleans transportation and communication infrastructure to crumble, leaving tens of thousands of people who had not evacuated beforehand to be stranded without basic necessities. In the aftermath of the hurricane, more than 800,000 people were displaced.

These photos, taken by the U.S. Coast Guard, show structural damage and broken levees. 

Natural disasters are a threat to all U.S. cities, and those on the coasts are especially vulnerable. By keeping histories such as New Orleans and Hurricane Katrina in mind, we can ensure that our largest population centers are prepared for the increasing number of natural disasters that occur each year.

Many records related to Hurricane Katrina are available in the National Archives Catalog including a series of photographs taken by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

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