Fort Worth, TX (WiredPRNews.com)—August 29, 2005 was the day that Hurricane Katrina, a category three, pummeled New Orleans and killed over 1,800 people. However, other recent hurricanes in the previous 50 years did not have the death toll anywhere near as high. In fact, most of the named hurricanes that made landfall in the US had only double-digit death tolls.
When Hurricane Andrew hammered a heavily populated area of South Florida in 1992, the category-five cyclone took the lives of only 25 people in the Sunshine State. In 1989, Hugo, another category five hurricane, killed 89 people when it slammed into the Carolinas.
So what went wrong? One aspect is that about half of New Orleans sits in a bowl-like depression that is below sea level. Aggravating this is the fact that Lake Pontchartrain, 630 square-mile saltwater lake, hugs the northern edge of the city. In addition, the massive Mississippi River runs through the city from west to east as it empties into the bird-foot deltas to the south and east of the city. So when the storm surge hit the Crescent City, much of the existing water surrounding the city pushed into the low-lying areas and flooded 80% of the city.
Another part of the problem was the negligence at the local and state level. One example is the fact that over 200 school buses were available to transport people out of the hurricane’s path, but local officials let them sit empty because they did not drivers. After Katrina made landfall, the floodwaters submerged the standard-size school buses which could have transported over 8,000 people to safety.
Another example happened two days before the hurricane hit, when Amtrak made arrangements to shuttle people out of the path of the hurricane. However, local officials refused the evacuation help and the train left New Orleans that day with 900 empty seats.
What is ironic is how then-governor Kathleen Blanco and New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin harshly criticized the Bush administration for a slow FEMA response when the city and state agencies failed to execute plans that they have developed and practiced.