New Orleans and Hurricane Katrina: When the Levees Failed

During the ten years we lived on Padre Island off the coast of Texas, we talked several times of making the nine-hour drive to New Orleans and taking in the famous sights: the jazz and zydeco music, the shotgun, antebellum and Victorian homes, the guesthouses and outdoor cafes, the live oaks draped in Spanish moss and Jackson Square.  The talk abruptly ended at the end of August in 2005 when Hurricane Katrina, the largest and third strongest hurricane ever recorded in the US made landfall, wreaking devastation along the Gulf Coast from Florida to Texas. Along with the rest of the world, we glued ourselves to our televisions and watched with horrified fascination as the events in New Orleans unfolded in the following days.

On our last visit to the US, near the eleventh anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, we finally made our way over the twenty-three mile causeway across Lake Pontchartrain to the city known as “The Big Easy.”  Wanting to experience all the city had to offer, we stayed at the Four Points by Sheraton on Bourbon Street – a choice that resulted in us wearing the ear plugs thoughtfully provided on the bed tables each night – and indulged in many of the typical tourist activities.  We wandered the streets around the French Quarter, devoured the beignets at the Café du Monde and visited Jackson Square, The Cabildo and the St. Louis Cathedral, the oldest cathedral in the US.  An afternoon ride on the Steamboat Natchez down the Mississippi gave us a view on the city’s riverfront and levee system while the city bus tour introduced us to the wards of New Orleans.  We watched the revelers after dark, listened to the famed sounds of the city, ate some memorable meals and awoke in the mornings to watch the street cleaners washing away the sins of the previous night.

Fun memories for sure and yet, our standout recollections of our time in New Orleans weren’t any of the above. The biggest impressions were made by the “Hurricane Katrina Tour” on the New Orleans Gray Line, a simple exhibit called, “Living with Hurricanes: Katrina and Beyond” at the Presbytère, and a taxi ride around the lower ninth ward on a dreary, rainy morning with a drawling, middle-aged driver named Junior.  We learned about New Orleans, more about Hurricane Katrina and its devastating aftermath and were forced to question how our middle-class assumptions had shaped our views of the victims as well as our expectations of our government.

Neighborhoods (source)

As with any story, a little context and history are necessary.  An important trade route along the Mississippi River and a shortcut to the Gulf of Mexico, New Orleans was founded in 1718 by the French, ruled for forty years by the Spanish, returned to France again and sold to the United States in 1803 as a part of the Louisiana Purchase.  A polyglot of different cultures, including American, French, Spanish, Celtic, English, German and African (free and enslaved), the city also received an influx of Creoles fleeing the revolution in Haiti.  Originally built on the slightly higher ground along the Mississippi River, the city built levees to control the flood-prone river which paradoxically increased the risk of flooding from the Gulf of Mexico.  As the city grew, it began to drain (about 1890 to the 1910’s) the area between Lake Pontchartrain and the Mississippi, known as the “back swamp” or “back woods” because of its cypress groves, using large pumps.  It took several decades before it became apparent that this reclaimed land was slowly sinking; many neighborhoods developed after the 1900’s are now below sea level, an area equivalent to about half of the city’s 200 square miles.  As our bus tour guide explained, it’s easier to understand how the flooding occurred if you think of New Orleans as a shallow bowl.  Earthen levees, as well as concrete and steel flood walls, are tasked with the job of protecting the homes.  (A spoiler: Investigations after Hurricane Katrina into the failure of the flood wall system that existed in 2005 called them the “largest civil engineering disaster in the history of the United States.”)

Elevation map (source)

Before the storm:  On Friday, August 26th, 2005, the city of New Orleans was alerted that a major hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico was heading for the Gulf Coast.  Saturday, the 27th, when the predicted track of the Category 3 hurricane shifted to the Mississippi-Louisiana state line, New Orleans issued a voluntary evacuation order for its citizens. All major roads (Interstates 10, 55 and 59) leading out of the city were converted to outbound traffic only.  On Sunday, August 28th, Hurricane Katrina gained strength as a Category 4 storm, then was upgraded a few hours later to a Category 5 with winds estimated at 160 miles per hour.  A mandatory evacuation order for the city was issued, the first in its history.  The Superdome was opened as a “shelter of last resort.”  Approximately 1 million people left the city with an estimated 100,000 remaining.  The National Weather Service issued the following statement:

“Most of the area will be uninhabitable for weeks … perhaps longer. At least one-half of well-constructed homes will have roof and wall failure… Water shortages will make human suffering incredible by modern standards.”

The day of the storm:  Hurricane Katrina, stretching across 400 miles, made landfall on the morning of August 29th as a Category 3 hurricane, preceded by hours of heavy rains and with winds ranging up to 140 miles per hour. Flooding began even before the hurricane reached the city and, once the storm surge arrived, the towering waves overtopped some of the levees while water below the canal walls seeped through the soil and breached areas along levees on four of the city’s canals. Flood waters rushed through the ruptures and the water rose so swiftly in low-lying places like St. Bernard Parish and the Ninth Ward, that many people had little time to reach the safety of a second floor or attic.

After the storm:  Picture if you will, Louisiana in late August after a heavy rain.  The heat would have been sweltering, in the high 90’s coupled with an ungodly level of humidity.  The sun would have been a blinding reflection off a toxic soup of sea water and mud, gas and oil from ruptured pipes, sewage from shattered lines, and all manner of household and yard debris as well as hundreds of drowned animals and floating human corpses. Survivors sitting in attics or on roofs had to have been completely overwhelmed and stunned as they surveyed the aftermath.  And perhaps the worst was yet to come in the days following the hurricane as thousands made their way to the Superdome seeking water, shelter, food and medicine.  According to one of the information signs at the “…Katrina and Beyond” exhibition at the Presbytère, the majority of the deaths were due to drowning (many residents did not know how to swim) or physical trauma caused by debris.  However,

“… A substantial number died in attics or unflooded homes due to dehydration, heat stroke, heart attack, stroke or lack of medicine. The elderly were most at risk with almost half of Louisiana’s fatalities over the age of 75.”

Initially, parts of New Orleans seemed to come through the hurricane with little damage but as more levees were breached, they too experienced flooding the day following the hurricane. It’s estimated that as much as 80% of the city experienced some flooding and in places the water may have been as deep as 25 feet.

 

explanation for “Katrina Crosses”

What we remember most in the days following Katrina, while we watched the horrific devastation unfold on our TV’s along with millions of others, was the appalling disconnect between what was being reported and our government’s botched response. Thousands of people desperately awaited water, food, shelter and medicine. FEMA’s (Federal Emergency Management Agency) eventual response, assistance and evacuation plans were miserably inadequate.  In the first days following the storm, New Orleans relied almost completely on the heroic efforts of hundreds of first responders, the US Coast Guard, medical personnel, neighbors and ordinary citizens. We watched civilization break down inside the Superdome where hasty preparations had been made to shelter no more than 10,000 citizens as a last resort; up to 35,000 people sought assistance in a reeking space where the heat was stifling, the plumbing systems had failed, the dead were unceremoniously discarded and violence and mayhem reigned. Outside was no better. Our thoughts were similar to Clarence Page, a Chicago Tribune columnist, who asked, “Is this America?”

Perhaps our most sobering lesson came, during our time at the museum exhibit when we found ourselves examining our own biases and assumptions about the New Orleans victims of Hurricane Katrina. Our biggest question over the years had been, “Why did so many stay?” The eye-opener was realizing how, for many, poverty can truly cut off avenues of escape as more than a quarter of New Orleans residents at the time of Hurricane Katrina lived below the poverty line.  Almost 30% of the city’s residents did not own a car nor did they have a place to escape to or a social support network outside the city.  Many lived on government assistance and, since it was the end of the month, had no available cash nor a credit card to pay for any expenses away from home.  Many were disabled, elderly or caring for someone else with chronic disabilities, the aged or young.  Many, who relied on their TV’s for information, learned of the impending hurricane far too late to take advantage of any public transportation that would have helped them flee the city.  One of the saddest and most ironic stories we heard from our tour bus driver was that many of the drivers authorized to provide emergency transportation out of the city had left New Orleans during the voluntary evacuation.

Sculpture of house in a tree – Katrina Bus Tour

Hurricane Katrina was the worst urban disaster in modern US history and the emergency response to the people of New Orleans following the storm was a national disgrace.  No one knows for sure how many people died during and after Hurricane Katrina although the estimate most quoted is 1,836 with 1,577 from Louisiana. It was over a month before the city was dry and many of those who evacuated the city following the hurricane never returned.

We were happy to have a chance to visit New Orleans after all the years we’d dreamed of going and found it to be a charming city that well deserves to be on anyone’s bucket list.  In fact, if you didn’t know about its recent history, you might not question how many neighborhoods seem to be refurbished or new, the numerous boarded-up buildings, the ongoing construction or the many vacant lots that still remain in the Ninth Ward.   In the French Quarter, there are few troubling reminders from the storm that ravished “The Big Easy.” Life goes on and it’s an awesome place to celebrate a special occasion or just the sheer joy of living.  But, like other cities that span a few centuries, there’s a tragic side to the city as well and it’s well worth the time to learn those stories as well.

By Anita Oliver and Richard Nash

Vacant lots and empty houses, Ninth Ward – September, 2016

43 comments

  • New Orleans seems like the place to be, Anita and Richard! So lively and fun!

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  • Good read, very interesting. The question is: have they fixed it and can it happen again? There’s always going to be hurricanes in that region. I remember commentators at the time kind of blaming it on “rising sea levels” and questioning whether it was worth doing anything the protect the city from future storms. So I’m just wondering whether you left with any optimism about the city’s ability to cope going forward?

    Frank (bbqboy)

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    • Good questions, Frank! Although the Gulf of Mexico has been relatively quiet in the last few seasons (following Hurricane Ike in 2008 which devastated Galveston) there’s no doubt that the hurricane threat will continue to loom, especially as the coastal waters become warmer due to climate change. After our time in New Orleans, we were left feeling that the City itself had a better disaster plan in place but really, due to the geography of the place, the safest thing is to make sure there’s a cogent evacuation plan that’s followed. The majority of the destruction was due to the failure of the floodwalls after the hurricane passed and we understood that those are also being replaced according to rigorous standards. It’s not hard to sum up our response to the city as a joyful sense of tap-dancing on the devils grave but, let’s just say, we wouldn’t be investing in property there … 😏

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  • This was a fascinating story Anita. We too sat glued to our television after Hurricane Katrina came ashore in NO. While we learned lots about the history of the area at that time, your post taught me so much more. This was yet another devastating event in our history, one in which we tragically failed the good people of NO. The resilience of the people is nothing short of miraculous. Given the current administration, I pray we have no natural disasters as I cannot imagine what the outcome might be.

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    • We’re so glad you enjoyed the post, LuAnn as Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath have always been a mystery to us and we found some of the answers to be quite fascinating. Since we lived on the Gulf Coast at the time, we were gripped with a “There but for the grace of God” kind of feeling while we watched the Hurricane preparations unfold and a real feeling of horror as we saw the federal emergency response afterwards. There’s nothing like imagining yourself in someone else’s shoes to bring the real catastrophe home … And we are right along with you in fervently hoping/praying that a disaster of this magnitude does not occur under the administration of DT because, by all indications so far, the response would be just as callous and inept as what occurred under Bush II’s watch.

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      • I am looking forward to getting away for the summer, where we will have limited internet. This trying to stay informed and being an activist isn’t always good for one’s physical well-being.

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        • We find ourselves monitoring the online news obsessively, especially the New York Times and Washington Post, and agree that the daily drama is equal parts of maddening and disheartening. The activism has to help a lot, LuAnn but I agree that (and this goes for us big time) limiting the internet (whether by choice, location or finding some other distracting activities) is a good start towards regaining some well-being! 😊

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          • I have to. I find I have completely stopped blogging and focused all my energy on doing what I can to stem the flow of madness. I can no longer do that or I will soon go mad. 🙂 I am going to reconnect and start blogging again.

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            • Good luck LuAnn. 🙂 Sad that it takes such a conscious effort not to obsess over the daily news cycle. Laugh if you want, but this week I’m trying a new trick which is to set a kitchen timer to 30-60 minutes at a time to read the news. I find I’m spending/wasting an inordinate amount of time going through all the online news looking for grains of hope … I need to get and do some things connected with living! Anita

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  • A very well researched and written story, thanks for taking the time to research and fill in some of the blanks that often get mistakenly or purposefully left out of the media. It was horrific to hear of the inadequacies of the response. You make a very relevant statement about the inability of so many people to evacuate, and remind us to challenge our own assumptions when we wonder why people do the things they do. P.S. We noticed Dick casually watching the band go by in the first picture.

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    • You know we love our history Tim and Anne 😉 and we found the research after our visit to New Orleans to be fascinating. In fact, as usual, we had a hard time deciding what to leave in and what to leave out. Perhaps one of our favorite things about travel is to try and imagine the people of past and present reacting to day-to-day events as well as disasters and try to place ourselves in their shoes. This makes a place come alive for us in a personal way and we often times come away wiser about a culture whether in our own country or abroad. As for Dick watching the band – you know he wanted to jump in and maybe shake a tambourine!

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  • New Orleans has been on my bucket list for a very long time so it’s interesting to see how it is recovering after the hurricane. But we have to remember that there was an enormous human cost to the devastation – thanks for this piece of history.

    Liked by 1 person

    • What was so terribly sad about the devastation and loss of life as well as the sheer misery experienced by the survivors was that so much of this could have been avoided. There were many “ifs”: if the people had had access to transportation and means to evacuate, if the levees and floodwalls had been designed properly and the funding for them had been received as appropriated, and if the response after the hurricane had been quick and efficient. If nothing else, Hurricane Katrina is a prime example of all that can go wrong. Hopefully it can serve as a learning lesson for future disasters. Anita

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  • Well-written piece. The Katrina tour would be a sobering tour, but also worthwhile. Like you said, cities have many sides and seeing more than just one gives a fuller appreciation for the city. I found your answer to the question “Why did so many people stay?” very interesting. We need to be forced to examine our own biases and assumptions (even if or especially if we think we don’t have any) often to gain a better understanding and ultimately make a difference in the world.

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    • Well said, Donna. We thought it was such a fascinating lesson to find out how our experiences and assumptions impeded our understanding of the real reasons why people stayed. In fact, one interesting article we read compared the response to some of Hurricane Katrina’s survivors as a “Blame the victim” scenario which, while true, is appalling. The delayed and inadequate response to assist the victims in this disaster was horrifying as was the extended suffering and increased death toll. Providing the citizens of a “civilized” country with shelter, food, clean water and healthcare should be basic requirements … Another discussion for another time. 🙁

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  • Outstanding job! It’s a thoughtful and succinct summation of the incalculable and almost unimaginable suffering that occurred in the aftermath of Katrina, due to a deliberate reallocation of resources that were supposed to have been spent on fortifying the flood walls and levees and other infrastructure renovation. As you observed, being there, seeing the immensity of Lake Ponchetrain, the geography of the city, and realizing the overwhelming vulnerability of the majority of the residents in New Orleans and their lack of resources or ability to help themselves and hence total dependence on governmental entities that were sluggish at best in their response was both sobering and enlightening. And it’s a cause for reflecting, as you and so many others have done, on whether we as a people, and our government, would respond any differently if a similar catastrophe were to happen in 2017. Thanks, Nita and Dick!

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    • Sharing our time in New OrIeans with you and Dick was a terrific experience, Nancy, and remains one of the high points of our visit back to the US last September. It was interesting for both of us to find out that Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath remained one of our most poignant memories of our time there. Until our visit, neither of us had a real “picture” of New Orleans geography nor really understood why so much of it was below sea level. And learning about the inherent design flaws, the short-sightedness of “cost reductions, and “shifting” of appropriated funds to other areas was enlightening. Unfortunately, in these times of political confusion where our new administration seems to be intent on providing even less of a safety net to its less fortunate, we’re afraid that the emergency response might be the same or even worse.

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  • That was a sobering tour for sure. I found your post to be extremely interesting as we, outsiders, really don’t know what kind of damage was inflicted. I really appreciated understanding the answer to your question, “Why did so many stay?” Thanks for educating me, once again!

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    • So glad Jan, that you found learning more about Hurricane Katrina to be as interesting as we did. And we can’t tell you how often we thank the internet gods for allowing us to delve into subjects that capture our attention with ease and usually more reading than we care to do! We were able to answer our question about “Why did so many stay” but the questions raised by our government’s slow and inadequate response very sadly still needs better answers.

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  • I remeber following the tragic news from here in the UK and feeling overwhelming sadness for the victims of this awful natural disaster, in particular in view of the slow and inadequate response of the US government. It was beyond comprehension. New Orleans has been on my wish list for ages, I hope one day to make it to the ” Big Easy “.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Gilda, you’d love the “Big Easy” and it’s a great city to have on your wish list. As expats, we appreciate our visits back to the US and the chance to travel around our country and see it from a tourist’s point of view. Finally seeing New Orleans was great fun and there’s so many places still on our must see list. Let us know if you need some ideas! 🙂

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  • Marvelous description of this fascinating city. You are so beautifully meticulous that I feel as if I am right by your side observing and absorbing along with you.

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    • We’re so glad you enjoyed our post, Patricia as learning more about Hurricane Katrina and the days following the storm answered many of our questions. One of the reasons we love travel so much is that it gives us a chance to see places we’ve read about as well as opportunities to understand more about the people, culture and history. It meant a lot to us when you wrote that we made you feel like you were with us!

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  • Wow, great writing. I’ve got New Orleans on my list of places to visit. I think based on your earplug mention that I may not stay near Bourbon Street!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Bourbon Street is definitely the heart of the French Quarter and, if you want to sleep, it might be better to find a room that’s a little more quiet. Our last night there, a preach-a-thon took place below our windows where a group of the righteous loudly berated the carousers for hours! You’ll definitely want to request a quieter room, check for ear plugs or, better yet, bring some noise canceling headphones. That said Phil, you’d love the music (although it might be hard to find any Green Days songs 🙂) and probably all of the other famed sights and sounds the city has to offer.

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  • This is an excellent post about a beautiful city which has incredible history, culture, food and architecture. We were there years back, after the hurricane, to visit with our son who was considering attending the University there. Katrina was a sad day in America and will always be remembered in history as a time of disaster when the government responded with way too little, way too late. So much unnecessary heartbreak and pain.

    Thanks for an excellent post.
    Peta

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    • Thanks Peta and we’re so glad you liked this post. New Orleans is indeed a beautiful and vibrant city and the people that we met were happy to share their city and what they loved best about it with us. We really enjoyed our time there so it was rather interesting to us that our big takeaway memories a few months later were about the devastation from Hurricane Katrina instead of the party atmosphere and good times celebration. As you said, so much of the suffering was unnecessary and the government’s response was totally inadequate. We like to think that lessons have been learned from Katrina and its aftermath and, that our country’s response will be better next time. However, that’s a question we hope not to see answered…

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  • This was fascinating reading. I didn’t really follow it at the time though I did gather that emergency response had been woefully inadequate. It’s good to read that the city begins to thrive again. The whole post reminded me of our visit to Christchurch, NZ, still recovering five years later (now six plus) from the earthquake that struck in 2011. The same crosses on boarded up buildings, the same vacant lots, the same construction everywhere. People are so resilient.
    Alison

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    • We’re so glad you like this Alison and you’re right – people are amazingly resilient. In fact, I remember my surprise when we heard the estimated death toll that the number wasn’t higher, especially when taking into account the delayed emergency response. What was heartening though was learning about so many ordinary people doing extraordinary things to help their neighbors as well as the generosity of people from around the country. We focused on the very sobering side of the Hurricane Katrina story but there were many stories of rescues and many people who were true heroes.

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  • We spent 4 days in NOLA in 2014 and had a grand time, so much to see and do. We were on a cross country road trip and I remember driving in to the city and being absolutely shocked to see casinos. Neither of us had any idea there was legal gambling in the city. But, we ignored it all and carried on. Beignets at Cafe du Monde are the best! We pretty much ate our way through the city and we loved the self-guided walking tour through the Garden District.

    We took a similar tour that included the area most impacted by Katrina and the tour was very sobering. I remember watching the news unfold television at the time. But when you see something on television, it’s difficult to grasp the magnitude until you see for yourself.

    Thank you for the insightful post and for the memories of our time in NOLA.

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    • Oh those beignets – Mmmm! Our joke was that you could see who’d sampled them from checking out the powdered sugar on people’s shirts. Definitely hard to eat them neatly! It sounds like you did many of the same things we did, Patti and took time to learn more about Hurricane Katrina’s impact on New Orleans as well. One of the best things about travel is that it really does give you a totally different perspective when you see a place in person rather than watching it on the TV. We’re so glad you enjoyed the post!

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  • ME BE in Panama

    Very cogent and sobering, Anita/Richard. We middle-class, affluent types take a whole lot for granted. It’s difficult to avoid the political aspects of this, but I fear that if another Katrina came to town tomorrow, our current leadership would likely have a similar response. It seems that if you happen to be poor, black, dispossessed and/or marginalized in some other way in modern America, your fate is second-class citizenship and settling for crumbs. It’s very sad.

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    • Sadly we have to agree. We like to think that we are “empathetic” but it was a shock to realize how much we take for granted since we have money in our pockets at the end of the month, debit and credit cards and transportation. Also interesting was understanding that people with financial, health and other social disadvantages also have limited support networks that they can rely on. It’s discouraging to believe that if a disaster like Hurricand Katrina struck now, the response might be even worse today. 😒

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  • Wow! A very thoughtful and powerful piece. I remember it well. My brother was working with some rap singers out of New Orleans and did not take the evacuation seriously until l insisted. Thank God he got out in time. The city of Houston was making for shelter for the displaced with a promise of future payment. We took in a woman with her three kids who had nothing but a few things in the car at our recently vacated rental condo. It was like 5 months before we saw payment from FEMA but there was no question it was the right thing to do. Definitely a sad part of U.S history. You expect this in third world countries, not the U.S and it makes you wonder if we are more prepared now were it to happen again. I would say no. 😦

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    • Thanks, Kemi! I’ll bet your brother thanked you big time after the storm passed. It’s really interesting that you had some firsthand experience with FEMA after the hurricane and it doesn’t sound like they were any quicker in responding to the victims by then. 😒 I remember that Houston sheltered thousands of refugees at the Astrodome until they had to leave with the approach of Hurricane Rita and the massive traffic gridlock from that city’s evacuation. And you’re so correct – the emergency response was absolutely shocking and what you’d expect in a third world country without any resources rather than one of the US’s finest cities. Sadly we have to agree with your opinion that the response probably wouldn’t be too much better now …😒

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  • Great report. A sad part of United States history.

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    • Thanks, John and Susan. Watching the hurricane and its aftermath from our home only hours away south on the Gulf Coast, it was a “there but for the grace of God” kind of tragedy that was easy to relate to. Some of the evacuees eventually ended up in our city, Corpus Christi, only to be bused away a few days later when Hurricane Rita struck the Gulf Coast and a mandatory evacuation was issued for our city.

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  • Thanks for the BEST synopsis of it all, Anita. And yes, a sobering eye-opener on our privileged assumptions that of course, all have both the means and outside support in a crises. Ironic too, that this morning I’m likewise reading about the devastating floods in Peru. ;(

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    • This was yet another eye opener from our travels this summer, Dyanne, of the huge chasms that cut across our country and seem to be dividing us in so many ways: politics, wealth and poverty, race and religion. It was sobering to read some of the investigations and reporting over the years following the hurricane and realize how many factors went into creating a “perfect storm” for those left behind to survive both the storm and the aftermath. And what is really sad now is our conclusion that, if another crisis of this magnitude occurred with our current government, the results might not be too much different.

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