A Catastrophic Storm
On August 23, 2005, meteorologists began tracking a tropical disturbance in the Atlantic Ocean east of southern Florida in the United States. The storm, which soon gained force and was named Hurricane Katrina, smashed into Florida with winds of 113 kilometers per hour (70 miles per hour). Once past the peninsula of Florida, it continued out over the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico, which enhanced the storm’s strength.
By August 28, Katrina filled almost the entire Gulf of Mexico. It was among the most powerful storms on record with winds as great as 274 kilometers per hour (170 miles per hour). The next morning, the behemoth hurricane, with slightly diminished winds, struck land in Mississippi and Louisiana. The storm surge—a rise in sea level caused by a hurricane—was as high as eight meters (26 feet).
Although the city of New Orleans, Louisiana, was spared from a direct hit, Katrina’s torrential rains and brutal storm surge pushed farther west into Louisiana. The deluge inundated the lakes that surround the city, causing their levels to rise. Within hours, the water broke through the levees protecting the city and began to flood New Orleans.
The mayor of New Orleans ordered residents to evacuate, and although many people did so, others either chose not to leave or lacked the means to evacuate. By August 30, four-fifths of the city was flooded. Many inhabitants were forced to find safety in areas at higher elevations, such as the Louisiana Superdome, which would eventually provide shelter to more than 30,000 people; the city’s Convention Center took in another 25,000.
Those who remained near their homes, especially in a region of the city called the Ninth Ward, were forced to climb onto their rooftops to escape the rising waters. Helicopters circled overhead, pulling many people to safety.
As the city remained mostly flooded, fresh water and food grew scarce. Sanitation systems leaked bacteria-laden sewage into the floodwaters, and some people were sickened by infections.
Help was slow to arrive. Many of the local emergency services, such as the police and fire department, had been flooded as well and were incapable of providing assistance. Five days after the flooding started, the federal government sent in soldiers and National Guard troops with food and water. The military then helped evacuate people from the city.
In the aftermath of Katrina, the city’s recovery was also slow. Engineers began pumping water from the city as soon as they could, but the operation took 43 days. Troops from the United States, Mexico, and Canada worked to rebuild the city, while people from around the world donated supplies and money to help with the reconstruction efforts. In the end, the damage from the storm was estimated to cost more than $160 billion, and more tragically, the loss of nearly 2,000 lives.
Telling History’s Story
There are numerous ways to tell the story of a catastrophic event such as Hurricane Katrina, each providing a different context and perspective. One way is through statistics and numbers, like the maximum wind speed of 274 kilometers per hour (170 miles per hour) or the 30,000 people who took shelter in the Superdome. Another way is through maps, like those that show the extent of the hurricane filling the entire Gulf of Mexico or the areas of New Orleans that flooded. And, of course, news and government reports supply important information about what happened, who was involved, and the timing of events.
But eyewitness accounts—the personal stories of the people who actually lived through the event—can make the story even richer and more meaningful. Interviewers collecting these oral histories can obtain information that might otherwise be left out of the records: They can explore the ways that individuals responded to the event; the ways in which their lives were changed; and how their lives remained the same.
One person who collected these accounts was Caroline Gerdes, who grew up in New Orleans. She studied journalism and history at Louisiana State University and decided to tell the story of the city that had been pummeled by Katrina. In addition to using news reports and data, Gerdes sought out the stories of the people who lived through the catastrophe. With a grant from National Geographic, she interviewed 50 people from the Ninth Ward. The articles and the book she wrote based on the interviews, An Oral History of the New Orleans Ninth Ward, present details about the lives of the survivors, which make the events of the storm more immediate and powerful. Gerdes wrote of the deeply personal possessions that people tried to save, such as photographs and jewelry, and the seemingly ordinary objects scavenged from the wreckage—refrigerator magnets or a rolling pin—that were often the only heirlooms left remaining. She poignantly recalled how her sister clutched a box of soggy pictures that had weathered the storm, “the still moist photos had transferred the smiles and faces of generations to her clothes and body.”
Following the storm, George Mason University and the University of New Orleans created the Hurricane Digital Memory Bank, which contains more than 25,000 items that record the stories of hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Among those items are oral histories of people who experienced the storm like Jim Martin, who remained in the 20 percent of New Orleans that did not flood. Wandering the streets following the catastrophe, he described the wreckage in vivid, heartbreaking terms: “Everywhere I looked I saw thousands of tree limbs, with loose leaves littering every street, and large, medium and small live oaks, magnolia, and many varieties of shrubs and bushes in yards and along sidewalks torn asunder or ripped from the ground…The stiff bare roots of trees and crepe myrtle bushes rose in the air like a giant octopus with rigor mortis setting in.”
Personal histories do not have to be told in words alone, and pictures can reveal the intangible feelings that words often cannot convey. Another contributor to the Digital Memory Bank, Julie Landry, submitted a photograph of her home that conveys the randomness of the destruction. She wrote of the scene: “This picture shows the damage in the kitchen of the house we'd begun renting two months prior. All the furniture was brand new. Here, the drinks and plates we left on the table remain on the table, but one of the chairs has found its way to the chandelier.”
Five years after Katrina, photographer Becca Skinner went to New Orleans to document the aftermath. She discovered that while some parts of the city had been rebuilt, sections on the outskirts still lay in ruins. In a photograph of an abandoned church, sunlight streams through stained-glass windows, illuminating the paint peeling off the walls in sheets. In another photograph, a little girl looks at photos of her family in a home she will never see again.
Through these details from the lives of people who lived through Katrina and its recovery, Gerdes, Martin, Landry, and Skinner tell stories of devastation and decay, of resilience and rebuilding. They help us understand what was lost—and perhaps more importantly, what was saved—in one of the most catastrophic storms in our history.