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How New Orleans weathered the storm
Sensemaker audio

How New Orleans weathered the storm

How New Orleans weathered the storm


Claudia, narrating: Hi, I’m Claudia and this is Sensemaker.

One story, everyday, to make sense of the world.

Today, on the 16th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans was hit with another terrible hurricane. Thankfully, the death toll hasn’t been nearly as bad this time.

So how did New Orleans manage to weather the storm better?

US weather forecasters have warned that the storm approaching Louisiana could be more powerful than Hurricane Katrina which devastated New Orleans 16 years ago.


Last week, news of a tropical storm that was heading towards Louisiana left people in a state of panic.

There were reports that it could even turn into a category five hurricane, the most powerful and devastating.

This is not a surprise. Hurricane Centre and I said this last night, I tweeted this, they had a two, two, two. I said this would be more than a two folks and now we’re going three, four, four and it would not be a shock if this is a category five on approach to Louisiana.

FOX13 Tampa Bay

And the people of Louisiana – particularly those in New Orleans – didn’t take those warnings lightly. They’ve been here before.

Tonight a lot of people fleeing Louisiana for safety in Houston. Drivers are spending hours on I10 this afternoon trying to escape what Hurricane Ida may bring

FOX26 Houston

Hurricane Ida made landfall on Sunday, the 29th August; amazingly, the 16th anniversary of when Hurricane Katrina tore through the state.

It came ashore as a category four hurricane, in comparison to Katrina’s category three, so people weren’t wrong to be worried. There were winds of 150 miles per hour and dangerous sea surges.

I should also say that the category system doesn’t quite paint the full picture of what these hurricanes are actually like.

Things like storm surge, which is the change in sea level that’s caused by a storm, the path a hurricane might take and the energy that a hurricane brings all can affect the severity of a hurricane.

For instance, whilst Katrina was category three when it landed in Louisiana, it produced a record storm surge of about 24 to 28 feet and also covered a massive area.

So even though Ida was a higher category hurricane because it was gaining intensity as it landed in Louisiana, Katrina was still a bigger hurricane in lots of ways.

In the days since, more than a million people have been left without power, sewage pumps have stopped working, and some hospitals have been forced to evacuate.

Now, Ida has been downgraded back to a tropical storm. And it’s left New Orleans, and most of southeast Louisiana, battered.

But it’s important to note, this could’ve been a lot worse.

In New Orleans we have a major American city under water. New Orleans thought it had been spared the worst but then two levees broke and slowly the city filled with water. Canal Street is now a canal. The city is going to be essentially uninhabitable for many days.


After Katrina hit in 2005 people didn’t even know if they would rebuild New Orleans, the damage was that bad.

As the city begins what’s likely the biggest demolition project in US history the question is: can we or should we put New Orleans back together again?

60 Minutes

But this time round, there’s been flooding in some suburbs, but most of New Orleans is relatively dry.

So, what changed in the last 16 years?

It has been five years we still have not gotten an independent investigation of the levee failures even though over 1,600 people died and even though a major city went underwater why we didn’t get it is something I don’t understand.

Sandy Rosenthal speaking on LAE

That’s Sandy Rosenthal. She was in New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina hit the city.

And though her home didn’t flood, she was outraged by the way her city and the people who lived there were being treated in the aftermath.

Katrina turned Sandy Rosenthal into an activist. And with the help of her then 15 year old son, she founded Levees.org, a grassroots organisation committed to raising awareness about the reasons for the catastrophic flooding that happened during Katrina.

She couldn’t stop asking, how did this happen? So she made it her mission to find answers.

And what she found in her digging was extraordinary.

The impact of Katrina was wildly exacerbated by fatal engineering flaws in the levees, (a levee is basically a man-made barrier built to stop rivers from overflowing).

And while many, including former president George Bush, claimed that no one could’ve seen the levee failures coming, that wasn’t strictly true.

The Times-Picayune, a local paper, ran a series of articles in 2002, three years before Katrina, about how the levees were in terrible condition. And scientists had been warning about what could happen if a powerful hurricane hit New Orleans and the flood defences weren’t updated.

The army corps of engineers – the group responsible for making the levees – blamed local government for not properly maintaining the flood control system.

But it later came out that the levees breaking had little to do with maintenance. In fact, the more people investigated the more they found the opposite: they failed because of fundamental structural problems.

So how did those in power respond?

The scale of the devastation of Katrina was unparalleled.

Sandy Rosenthal and her organisation played a key role in figuring out why it was so bad and who was responsible.

That same year the city of New Orleans invested $14.5 billion in a new flood control system. The city’s levees would’ve probably been rebuilt even if Sandy Rosenthal hadn’t tried to find answers but – without her – the same mistakes may have been repeated in their construction.

Sandy’s now written a book, part memoir, part exposé, meticulously detailing all the failures that led up to Katrina.

In my book I document that the the responsibility for a vacuum of communication and living in a black hole belongs squarely at the feet of FEMA

Sandy Rosenthal speaking at the 2020 Miami Book Fair

The flood defence systems’ first test in 16 years came on Sunday. And this time round, the levees, floodgates and floodwalls held up.

And yes, Hurricane Ida was not Katrina but it also could’ve been more dangerous for New Orleans because of the way that it was moving through the city.

But it’s not all good news. New Orleans is quite literally sinking because it’s built on marshland. A lot of the city is already significantly below sea level And when you add in the fact that climate change is accelerating sea level rise, things don’t look so hopeful in the long term. A lot of people are already asking how much more flooding these levees can take.

But for now, it seems as though they’re doing their job and those in power have learnt the lessons of Katrina.

This episode was written by Nimo Omer and produced by Katie Gunning.

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