Ten Years After Katrina: Lessons, Warnings, Rebuilding

View of inundated areas in New Orleans following breaking of the levees surrounding the city as the result of Hurricane Katrina. New Orleans, Louisiana. September 11, 2005. Photographer: Lieut. Commander Mark Moran, NOAA Corps, NMAO/AOC; Creative Commons licence.


As the 10th anniversary of the Hurricane Katrina catastrophe approaches, many news media are doing stories that try to make sense of it. For journalists, it's an inexhaustible subject because it's about people's lives and the moral perils of the governments we choose. It's about the looming catastrophes we deny.

Katrina began forming in the Atlantic in late August of 2005, crossed Florida August 25, strengthened in the Gulf of Mexico, reached category 4 and 5 intensity by August 28, and made landfall near New Orleans as a category 3 on August 29. Fortunately, extensive evacuation efforts in Mississippi and Louisiana limited immediate loss of life from the storm itself.

But the storm surge and a breach of levees caused floodwaters to start rising almost immediately in many parts of New Orleans, and it was soon clear that the lives of many who had not evacuated were in peril. People were trapped in attics and shouting for help from rooftops. Hundreds died. By August 30, some 15,000 people were trapped at the Superdome, which had been designated the refuge of last resort. By August 31, some 85% of New Orleans was under water.

Veteran Times-Picayune reporter Mark Schleifstein wrote later of evacuating the newspaper's office with colleagues in the back of a truck as the water rose. The newspaper kept publishing — electronically at first — providing a vital service to the stricken community. Few probably remembered that triple-Pulitzer Schleifstein had co-authored with John McQuaid a series ("Washing Away") back in 2002 that had pretty much foretold the disaster. It used computer models to look at the storm surge from a direct hit by a major hurricane and pointed to the levees as the weak spot in the below-sea-level city's protection. In a worst-case scenario, it hypothesized that as many as 100,000 people could be fatally trapped. The series had huge impact, and probably inspired evacuation planning that saved tens of thousands of lives. Schleifstein lost his house in the flood, as did many other New Orleanians.

Ten years later, big parts of the city have come back — but much damage also has remained. The diaspora of citizens is partly permanent. Many other parts of the Gulf Coast were devastated and are still recovering.

The story was much more than a failure of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). It was also for at least a while a story of failed governments — local, state and federal — and the almost total failure of basic infrastructure like water, sewer, drainage, electrical utilities, schools, hospitals and the like. It was about failure to ask: "What if?"

This month, there has been an outpouring of media coverage in advance of the anniversary. The Times-Picayune itself has collected links to much of that coverage as it keeps emerging. National Public Radio has been running a series of stories on Katrina's aftermath.

At the Society of Environmental Journalists' 2014 Annual Conference in New Orleans, many of the the rebuilding issues were explored. In preparation for that conference, SEJ published special TipSheets on coastal risk and resilience to help reporters with coverage, by Amy Wold of the Baton Rouge Advocate.