Katrina was upgraded to a Category 5 hurricane on Sunday, August 28, 2005 at 7 a.m. New Orleans time. By noon, the Louisiana Superdome was opened as a temporary shelter. The hurricane made final landfall 17 hours later, lifting storm surges around lakes and canals. In three more hours, the levees protecting Orleans Parish were breached and rising water was reported in multiple communities.
Katrina wreaked havoc in 25 hours, but the disaster was decades in the making—and will be felt well past the decade milestone this month.
Katrina was the costliest hurricane in the history of the United States and arguably the most devastating to our natural psyche. Disasters like Katrina, Superstorm Sandy, the Loma Prieta earthquake, and innumerable others are often perceived as instantaneous, occurring in a matter of seconds or hours.
But we now understand that social, economic, and political problems decades in the making contribute as much— if not more— to the damage.
In fact, Katrina reminded us that disasters don’t just have natural causes. Fortunately, institutions like FEMA and the Rockefeller Foundation are now taking these lessons to heart and incentivizing mitigation strategies and resilience-building plans that span from physical protections to community preparedness strategies .
Yet the one snapshot along the timeline that we still have not devoted resources and research to are the “after” pictures—the “long after” pictures. The federal National Disaster Recovery Framework posits that recovery activities require months, if not years. We know that the effects of hazards on people, properties, and communities last decades.
Disasters aren’t just a moment. They’re a lifetime.
10 years ago
Katrina’s 10-year milestone later this month provides an opportunity for reflection. Immediately after the damage, my colleagues at Urban Institute and many other scholars looked at the chronic problems facing the region prior to landfall, and the immediate recovery needs after.
The federal government, funder of about $88 billion of the relief and recovery efforts, launched several research and evaluation efforts to monitor the use of funds and their effects on victims. Most of these focused on FEMA’s operations and the delivery of relief and assistance. Some looked at the rebuilding rates and decisions of property owners, including those offered HUD’s Community Development Block Grant disaster funds for Katrina and Rita victims.
These studies have provided invaluable insight for improving federal operations and assistance, and on some of the short-term outcomes of affected citizens . These studies recorded how some residents stayed and rebuilt, while others were displaced or simply chose to move away.
10 years later
But if disaster effects last a lifetime, what do we know about these commitments and investments 10 years after? Most important, how are the people and the communities that received assistance faring?
We're building the physical protections for a 100-year storm and even that might not be enough. Despite claims of full recovery, we're nowhere near the social and economic infrastructure needed to prepare communities for the next storm.
Alas, the formal, sponsored evaluations have ended—though clearly the affected residents and communities endure. Current and former residents of New Orleans are particularly conscious of the ongoing effects of the disaster on their employment, housing, education, and health outcomes. Journalists and advocates continue to document these effects through personal and family stories. But the need for more long-term evidence is now.
With additional commitment to long-term monitoring and evaluation, we can identify those services that have helped communities get back on their feet more quickly, efficiently, and comprehensively. We can even begin to compare these post-disaster services with pre-disaster investments in preparedness and mitigation.
As the world converges in New Orleans in August 2015 to reflect on the hours in which Katrina exploded in August 2005, we must keep an eye on what is happening in September 2015 and beyond.
Lifetimes are worth more than a moment’s reflection.
On Monday, August 24, The Atlantic will mark the 10-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina by bringing together hundreds of people for a meaningful and productive dialogue. This event has been organized with Urban Institute experts who have studied the Katrina recovery effort and its effects on the changing national approach to disaster policy ever since—an approach that increasingly considers social, economic, political, and environmental perspectives. Please tune in here to watch the live broadcast beginning at 10 am EST.
This post is the first of a four-part series commemorating the 10-year milestone of Katrina’s landfall on Gulf Coast. Future posts will focus on Katrina’s subsequent lessons for disaster policy, the current economic and political challenges facing US disaster preparation, and the nature of future disasters.