Throughout late August and early September of 2005, a Category 5 hurricane hit Louisiana and wreaked much of the coastal region, particularly New Orleans. Although the storm hit hard and wind and rain caused destruction, the majority of the devastation was caused after the weather began to clear. The city’s drainage canals, navigational canal levees, and floodwalls were severely damaged, and, with nowhere else for the water to go, New Orleans was flooded.
The mayor had issued an evacuation order on August 28, but approximately 100,000 residents lacked reliable transportation out of the city. Thousands of the remaining people went to the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, which was made into a public “shelter of last resort” by the National Guard. Originally, government officials planned to shelter approximately 15,000 people in the dome for three days. It quickly became apparent that they severely underestimated how many would need assistance and the durability of the structure. Search and Rescue began saving people around the city and the number of survivors seeking shelter in the dome rose to 30,000. There were not enough supplies for the number of people, no water purification system, and no designated medical staff. Once the water began to rise in the field, the people were evacuated to Houston, Texas.
Around the city, people were doing there best to escape the rising water by taking shelter on roofs or gathering in locations built at a higher elevation. Many of the most haunting images of this disaster are of people on their rooftops pleading for assistance. Unfortunately, some never received help. The National Hurricane Center reported that there were 1,833 deaths caused by the storm, 971 of which took place in New Orleans. 40% of deaths were caused by drowning, while the rest were due to injury, trauma, and heart conditions. New Orleans had a large African American population, but does not fully explain why the majority of these deaths were Black men and women.
In the years since Katrina, New Orleans lost much of its population, although it has slowly increased in recent years. According to the United States Census Bureau, in April 2000 there were 484,674 people living in the city, which was reduced to 230,172 by July 2006. This is a decrease of over 50%. By 2018, the estimated population had increased to 391,006, and the demographics of the city had changed rather significantly. The number of White, Asian American, and Hispanic residents is on the rise, while the once prominent number of African American citizens has decreased. New Orleans is experiencing rapid gentrification as people decide that the city has been rebuilt enough to return.
It is vital that people remember Hurricane Katrina and understand the full story of her destruction of the city. In part, it's because the survivors and, especially, those who died deserve to be remembered. Their story should be told. However, we should also study Katrina and its ongoing impact on New Orleans because there is, undeniably, a link to race and racism in the catastrophe and the subsequent rebuilding. We need to understand why the Black residents were so vulnerable to the storm, and why it was so difficult for them to return to New Orleans. According to Patrick Sharkey in the Journal of Black Studies, “In doing so, we shed light on the legacy of racial and economic segregation that has structured residential New Orleans, along with so many other urban centers in America.” By raising awareness of the problem, we can take more steps to ensure it never happens again.