Hurricane Katrina Aftermath

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Hurricane Katrina Aftermath

To Protect and Serve


By: Rick Wilking

Date: September 1, 2005

Source: Rick Wilking. "Hurricane Katrina: To Protect and Serve." Corbis, 2005.

About the Photographer: Rick Wilking is a freelance photographer best known for his twelve years on the White House staff as an official photographer to the President of the United States.


On the morning of August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina, the strongest hurricane ever recorded in the Gulf of Mexico (Hurricane Rita, later on that season, would outdo its ferocity), hit the coastlines of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. For nearly twenty-four hours it would batter the three southern states, causing catastrophic damage estimated at $75 billion. In total the hurricane killed more than 1,400 people, making it the deadliest storm to hit America in nearly eighty years.

By far the most seriously impacted area was the city of New Orleans. Levees, which had previously protected the low-lying city from Lake Pontchartrain, were breached by floodwater, causing devastation across large parts of the city and leaving many districts under water. Around one million people had been displaced or evacuated because of Katrina, including most of the population of New Orleans. But evacuation had not been mandatory and up to 150,000 people—the old, the poor, the infirm, the stubborn, and the naive—remained in the ruined city for the duration of the storm, and once there could not get out afterwards. This included up to 30,000 people at the city's official shelters at the Superdome Stadium and Convention Center.

Within hours of Katrina abating, the natural chaos wrought by the storm had given way to mayhem of a manmade complexion. Only a skeleton service of police and national guardsmen remained in New Orleans, and they were immediately overwhelmed by the scale of the devastation with which they were faced. Substantial numbers of reinforcements would not arrive for days, leaving the city in a state of lawlessness. Looters began roaming the streets, some stealing food and water out of necessity; but many others taking a more opportunistic view and stealing electrical equipment, consumer goods and anything else they could get their hands on. New Orleans' French Quarter was sacked by looters and some remaining store owners became involved in shootouts with looters.

Darker rumors also began to surface from the Superdome, from where stories of rape, assault, and murder began to emerge. Many of these stories assumed exaggerated importance and were distorted in the chaos in the days following Katrina, but more than forty sexual assaults were reported in New Orleans during this time. Moreover, rescue helicopters arriving at the Superdome on September 1 were reportedly shot upon by refugees, delaying the rescue effort even further. A form of martial law was invoked, although depleted ranks of police and National Guard were seemingly in no position to universally enforce it.

By that stage the world's media, who seemed to be in the wrecked city in greater numbers than rescue teams and police and National Guard, were almost universally describing New Orleans as being in "a state of anarchy." Anger at the apparent inertia of the federal government was widespread both in New Orleans and across the world. Longstanding rivals of the U.S. government, such as Venezuela and Cuba, made offers of relief aid, while President Bush seemed to struggle to keep pace with events. Ray Nagin, New Orleans Mayor, repeatedly showed his frustration at Washington's failure to respond to the unfolding scenes of lawlessness, accusing the federal government of "feeding the people a line of bull and spinning [while] people are dying" and imploring Washington to "get off your asses and let's do something."

Finally, on Friday September 2, large numbers of National Guard reserves arrived in New Orleans to help bring order to the city. Louisiana governor Kathleen Blanco warned that "they know how to shoot to kill." Several shootouts occurred between guards and looters, including a fatal incident at Danziger Bridge on September 4, when eight armed men began shooting at contractors, and the National Guardsmen protecting them opened fire, killing five of the assailants. The influx of the National Guard over the weekend of September 3-4 quickly brought the New Orleans state of "anarchy" under control. They were able to assist in bussing out survivors, control looting, and protect contractors brought in to rebuild the breached levees and pump out flood water.



See primary source image.


The wake of Hurricane Katrina was a political disaster for President Bush, with his approval ratings falling lower than those of any president since records began. He was roundly criticized for his failure to grasp the extent of the tragedy; America's occupation of Iraq—ordered by Bush—was blamed for diverting thousands of National Guard troops away from the disaster; his benign record on environmental issues was invoked; and many of his political opponents, pointing out that many of Katrina's victims were black and poor, used the catastrophe as evidence that President Bush cared nothing for marginalized sections of American society. The question of racism was brought into play too: setting the tone, Reverend Jesse Jackson, inspecting the pavement outside New Orleans Convention Center, said "This looks like the hull of a slave ship."

More than anything else, however, it was the delay between the hurricane and the rescue effort starting in earnest that caused the most anger. The state of anarchy and imminent sense of danger prevalent in New Orleans in the days after Katrina served to exacerbate negative feelings towards the federal government, but it was by no means the cause.

On September 9, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) director Michael Brown was dismissed from his role of managing the Hurricane Katrina relief effort. Brown had been criticized for his management of the tragedy, but many felt that he was made a scapegoat for wider failings within the Bush administration.

By September 12, a fortnight after Katrina had struck, New Orleans had effectively turned into an army camp, with 70,000 national guardsmen and active-duty soldiers based in the region, accompanying thousands of local, state, and federal law enforcement officers. They were accompanied by hundreds of mercenaries, drafted in by the city's wealthiest families to protect their homes from looters.

Assessments of media coverage of Katrina in the weeks and months following the disaster brought accusations that the media had exaggerated the prevalence of crime in New Orleans. In actuality the worst they had usually done was report misleading eyewitness statements as fact. A prime example was Police Chief Eddie Compass reporting on September 1 of the Superdome: "We have individuals who are getting raped; we have individuals who are getting beaten." Five days later, he told Oprah Winfrey that babies were being raped. The first example turned out to be a substantial over-exaggeration; the latter wholly unsubstantiated.

Elsewhere in America, communities that had accepted Katrina refugees claimed that the influx of these newcomers had led to crime waves in their cities in the months following the disaster. In Houston, which took in 150,000 New Orleans refugees, murders were up fifty percent year on year for January 2006. "These guys are hooking up with friends and old rivalries are beginning again," Sergeant Brian Harris, a Houston Gang Murder Squad investigator, told Time magazine. Fraudulent relief and insurance claims have also come under scrutiny from law enforcement agencies at local, state, and federal level. Six months after the hurricane, reports of arrests and prosecutions for fraud were occurring on almost a weekly basis.


Web sites "Big Questions for the Big Easy." 〈〉 (accessed March 5, 2006).

Federal Emergency Management Agency. "Louisiana Hurricane KatrinaDeclared August 29, 2005." 〈〉 (accessed March 5, 2006).

Guardian Unlimited. "Special Report: Hurricane Katrina." 〈,16441,1560620,00.html〉 (accessed March 5, 2006).