As has been well documented, Saturday marks the 10th anniversary of the beginning of the costliest, and arguably the worst national disaster in U.S. history. Hurricane Katrina made landfall for the second time after first hitting South Florida, targeting the Gulf Coast of Mississippi, and of course reaching New Orleans as well. The storm and especially the deadly flooding that followed after the levees protecting that city were breached, left at least 1,833 dead, hundreds of thousands of people displaced, and over $100 billion in economic damages. Perhaps even more deadly than the natural disaster, was the man-made crisis caused by the inadequate response by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which a congressional investigation labeled a “national failure.” The dystopian scenes along the submerged streets with the Superdome sticking out like an island was matched by the Mississippi resort towns of Gulfport and Biloxi, which resembled a fjord.
Despite Mississippi taking the brunt of the physical damage from the storm, it was New Orleans where the breakdown in civility was so frequently documented. From Pulitzer Prize winning Times-Picayune Journalist Chris Rose’s stark portrayals of the aftermath, to the shocking reports of murders inside of the Superdome covered by journalists from thousands of miles away, what used to look like the U.S. had perhaps transformed into a scene from the original “Walking Dead” prequel. Not helping to prevent the perception of societal breakdown was the delayed response from President George W. Bush, or the lack of any clue of what to do by FEMA chief, and former show-pony executive, Michael D. Brown. Mayor Ray Nagin’s angered plea on September 2nd for FEMA and the Bush Administration to help the city on national television was another moment that seemed more prone to the climax of a Hollywood blockbuster, notwithstanding the fact that Nagin’s hesitation, waiting until the last minute to order a mandatory evacuation likely exacerbated the death toll. Also adding to the surreal events was Kaynye West’s diatribe during the televised Katrina relief fundraiser and actor Sean Penn arriving by boat to aid in the rescue effort.
Although the height of human drama played out to most of the country and the world in cinematic fashion, it would be a mistake to believe that Hurricane Katrina remains a product of the past. The disaster was born that week ten years ago, but it is very much alive, affecting people’s lives every day moving forward. CNN conducted a poll that showed, while the memories have faded a little, the lessons of Katrina remain on the forefront. 51 percent of respondents believe that the U.S. is no better prepared for a disaster like Katrina in the future. This is up from 48 percent who were asked that question in 2006. While that may seem a surprising number, yet not a very significant difference, it bears remembering JUST HOW BAD THE 2005 RESPONSE WAS. The poll also revealed that 77 percent of respondents feel sadness when thinking about Katrina, compared to 98 percent in a poll taken days after the storm hit. Only 39 percent of respondents feel anger when thinking about the response, including 50 percent of Democrats and 42 percent of non-whites, along with 36 percent of whites. 62 percent of all respondents felt anger in the immediate days of the disaster. Still, 59 percent of Americans responded that they were not proud of the recovery efforts, compared to 38 percent who said they were proud.
The 51 percent response must come as major disappointment for hard-working members of the Army Corps of Engineers. The Corps and the federal government have invested $14.45 billion in the reconstruction of levees and flood control mechanisms to protect the city of New Orleans in the wake of Katrina. In Mississippi, the flooded bridges were rebuilt taller and higher, and the resort towns’ famous floating casino owners were now permitted to build on land, seeking higher altitudes along the shore. In total, $116 billion was appropriated by Congress to help with the relief and reconstruction efforts. Although the Flood Control Act of 1928 gives virtually all Corps activity immunity from liability, U.S. District Judge Stanwood Duval ruled in 2013 that the Corps was responsible for faulty construction leading to the levee breaches in the first place. Duval wrote, “I feel obligated to note that the bureaucratic behemoth that is the Army Corps of Engineers is virtually unaccountable to the citizens it protects despite the Federal Tort Claims Act. The public will very possibly be more jeopardized by a lack of accountability than a rare judgment granting relief. The untold billions of dollars of damage incurred by the greater New Orleans area as a result of the levee failures during Katrina speak eloquently to that point.”
Likely not helping public sentiment towards disaster recovery are the controversial FEMA trailers, including the 45,000 sent to Mississippi to house displaced residents. The quickly-built and inexpensive trailers took on a life of their own in some respects. The trailers were found to contain high amounts of the known carcinogen formaldehyde. Residents who fell ill living in the trailers settled a $14.8 million class-action lawsuit against several of the manufacturers in 2012. Although FEMA officially discontinued the program in 2009, a temporary injunction against the sales of the trailers was lifted in 2010, allowing over 100,000 of them to be sold at a GSA auction. Many of the trailers are now located in North Dakota and Montana, near the Bakken oil formation, which has created boomtowns with very little infrastructure. Litigation involving the use of these trailers in their new environment, as well as involving formaldehyde will likely remain an ongoing issue.
Still, not all legacies of Katrina are negative. There is evidence that the aftermath of Katrina led to the rise of cloud computing and data management innovation. Cloud computing was in its infancy in 2005, and the breakdown in communications, especially regarding cell towers and landline phone lines were well-documented. As Forbes’s Nora Hahn points out, “Businesses that were shut down in the wake of Katrina’s destruction would be far better off today. In fact, most of the technology outages and data loss would never happen in this day and age with the new environment of public clouds, private clouds and hybrid cloud formations.” Hahn notes one company, Dallas-based Cooperative Processing Resources (CPR), a debt management company which operates a field office in New Orleans. Using a cloud service provided at the time by Sungard Availability Services, offering data recovery and backup, the field office was back online an hour after losing power as the storm made landfall. Today, cloud services are ubiquitous, from the billion-dollar competitions between Amazon, Microsoft, Apple, and IBM, to personal services like Dropbox and social media sites.
Like many others, I served as a disaster responder during Katrina, only I delivered generators and other electronic and computer equipment to South Florida, where Katrina struck days before re-entering the Gulf towards Mississippi and Louisiana. At the time, it was becoming a routine affair, having serviced a large portion of the state when four hurricanes hit Florida the year prior. Although I witnessed Punta Gorda after it was crushed by Hurricane Charley in 2004, I was shocked from afar, like many others by the breakdown in humanity that resulted from Katrina’s impact in the Gulf. The disaster hit home on many levels. Charley’s original path into the mouth of Tampa Bay was predicted to have put my home 8-12 feet underwater. The breakdown in governmental relief efforts during the Katrina disaster led my journey into citizen watchdoggery, starting with researching for a local political television show, to conducting social research, and finally to gaining a (hopefully) national platform. It is fair to say that I never would be writing for Legal Reader had Katrina not have occurred. In some degree, I carry the legacy of Katrina with me every time I sit down to write.
CNN – Jennifer Agiesta and Theodore Schleifer
ESPN – Wright Thompson
Forbes – Nora Hahn
The Blaze – Paul Markel
Vox – Heather Smith
USA Today – Jimmie E. Gates (Mississippi Clarion-Ledger)