The Irresponse to Hurricane Katrina: Social Analysis


Just after 6:00 a.m. on August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina made landfall as a Category 4 storm with 140 m.p.h. sustained winds. (11) The mayor of New Orleans, Ray Nagin, had not issued a mandatory evacuation until 9:30 a.m. on August 28, merely 20 hours before the storm hit. At that point, people with cars piled in them with clothing and supplies for a few days and hit the road. There were mile long back ups out of the city, but those in the traffic jams were able to escape alive. Residents without cars, most of whom were members of low-income households, had little chance of evacuating the city by Sunday morning. One resident said, "We have no car. We had no way to leave. A family member is ill and we had no way to transport them. There were no busses providing a way out." (12) Another important point to note is: “since the storm was at the end of the month and many low-income residents of New Orleans live from paycheck to paycheck, economic resources for evacuating were particularly scarce.” (9) The Lower Ninth Ward is home to many low-income New Orleanians. Those who were aware of the imminent threat of the storm (which most learned of through major television networks that did not stress the severity of the situation until the 48 hour window before the storm) soon learned of the city’s plan to bus people without a means of escaping on such short notice to the Superdome. They gathered belongings for a few days and headed to the ten designated locations for pick up. Over 9,000 people waited in line in the extreme heat without water for hours outside of the Superdome, unaware that they would be considered the lucky ones. They (with the exception of three people) would not be counted in the 1,800 person death toll.

The poor who did not hear about the shuttling plan remained in their houses. Some who had heard of the busses going to the Superdome decided against leaving because they wanted to protect their property. They were worried of their belongings getting stolen or of not being able to prove they rightfully owned their homes. Often, these were poor blacks who did not have documents claiming their house since it had been passed down from their enslaved ancestors. The only way to protect their house and belongings was to remain in their home.

Many people took elderly neighbors and parishioners into their homes. Then, they waited. At first they faced heavy rain, wind gusts up to 190 M.P.H., and large flying debris such as signs, pieces of roofs, and bulky branches. Many died during the storm, but it was after the storm when people faced the worst conditions. The wind died down and the rain stopped falling, but the water was still rising. People were forced into attics and ultimately onto their roofs (or the roof of a neighbor’s two-story house). Left with no way to communicate with the outside world, people made flags and signs out of whatever they could find. The water was contaminated with many substances including mercury from home thermometers. People who swam to higher ground for refuge were inflicted with legions on their skin a few days later. Almost everyone who came in contact with mercury died within a week. By August 31, Lake Pontchartrain and Industrial Canal levees had been breached and left 80 percent of New Orleans under water and inflicted $125 billion in damages.
(11) Portions of the Lower Ninth were under 18 to 22 feet of water, completely submerging most rooftops.

Rescue crews worked around the clock to retrieve victims and bring them to the Superdome. The U.S. Coast Guard, U.S. National Guard, and civilians are given credit for being the first responders. They shuttled people to the Superdome which ultimately housed approximately 25,000 refugees for days. (2) Despite the hard work of rescue crews, people remained stranded on portions of I-10 and on bridges in the sun, heat, and humidity for days without food, water, or medical attention. In the Superdome people were not much better off. “Conditions in the Superdome had become horrendous: There was no air conditioning, the toilets were backed up, and the stench was so bad that medical workers wore masks as they walked around.” (2)

Two days after Katrina hit, busses began to transport refugees to the Astrodome in Houston, Texas. This process was very slow and was not complete until Sunday, September 4. On Saturday, the evacuation came to a halt for no known reason.
On Saturday morning, “between 2,000 and 5,000 people were left at the Superdome. But it remained a mystery why the buses stopped coming to pick up refugees and shuttle them away.” (1) Hyatt Hotel guests and employees took precedent on Friday and stalled the evacuation for a few hours, but Saturday the busses stopped. Those who remained stranded in the Superdome were terrified and confused. “Conditions in the Superdome remained unbearable even as the crowd shrank after buses ferried thousands to Houston a day earlier. Much of the medical staff that had been working in the "special needs" arena had been evacuated.” (1) One of the victims who remained at the Superdome “said she got stuck in the stadium when the storm hit. She said she was robbed of everything she had with her, including her shoes. […] Then she said, ‘I don't want to go to no Astrodome. I've been domed almost to death.’” (1)


Although all New Orleanians were evacuated by Sunday, September 4, their trials were nowhere near over. Victims were displaced throughout every state in the U.S., blockaded from returning for weeks after the storm, and unable to receive money from insurance claims. The poor before the storm are even poorer now. In the Lower Ninth, less than half of the houses have been rebuilt, the city resumed trash pickup three years after the storm, and only one elementary school and virtually no services are present. The poor continue to be neglected and continue to get poorer.

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