Did anyone survive Hurricane Katrina?

Ten years after Hurricane KatrinaThe day the water came

"Good evening everyone: I am Valorie Carter and here is what is happening ...."

The news from ABC 33/40 in Birmingham, Alabama on the evening of August 28, 2005.

"Everywhere along the Gulf Coast, people are preparing for the worst. Hurricane Katrina is currently sweeping the Gulf of Mexico at winds of 175 miles per hour, making it one of the most powerful hurricanes ever seen here."

The storm had been brewing over the Atlantic for days, recalls marine researcher Simon Boxall from the University of Southampton in Great Britain.

"In August 2005 the sea surface was particularly warm and the upper atmosphere was very stable. The conditions were perfect for a perfect storm."

On the morning of August 28th, Ray Nagin, the Mayor of New Orleans, will appear before the press.

"The storm is getting stronger and stronger and is still heading for New Orleans. Every meteorologist, every expert I have spoken to assumes that this storm will hit New Orleans heavily."

Therefore, in the following minutes, Ray Nagin orders the first forced evacuation in the history of the city.

"Ladies and gentlemen, I wish I had better news for you, but we are facing the storm that most of us feared."

About a million people from New Orleans and the surrounding coastal towns make their way north, into the protected interior of the country. Miles of traffic jams form on the highways.

Only those who do not want to leave and those who cannot leave - because they do not have a car and do not have the money for bus or train tickets remain in the city itself. A makeshift emergency shelter will be set up for them in the Superdome. The television channel The Weather Channel reports on a continuous broadcast from the region around the Gulf of Mexico.

"I'm Jeff Morrow in Covington, Louisiana. We're getting really good gusts from Katrina here. But as far as I can tell, the situation is much worse towards New Orleans and Mississippi. Stay tuned, I'll be back in a few minutes a live update, then find out what we're going through here. "

Storm speed: 140 mph

On the morning of August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina reached New Orleans. The storm sweeps a bow wave about six meters high. It reaches the heart of the city through a network of waterways and artificial canals. Dikes and flood walls break in more than 50 places along these canals. Thomas Roberts on CNN Headline News:

"Katrina has weakened but is not going to go away anytime soon. The hurricane hit the coast as a Category 4 storm at 140 mph between Grand Isle, Louisiana and the Mississippi Estuary and then weakened. CNN reporter Jeanne Meserve is on site in western New Orleans. She describes the damage as much more shocking than previously thought: "

"A whole part of town, the Lower Ninth Ward, seems to be under water up to the roof tops."

"New Orleans is like a bathtub without a drain"

Stephen Nelson: "In the afternoon, Katrina had moved north and the wind had turned, but by then the levees had already broken. And New Orleans is like a bathtub without a drain - all the water that gets in has to be laboriously pumped out of the city. That normally happens via the drainage canals that flow north into Lake Pontchatrain. But here, too, there had been dike breaches. So you could not pump water into the drainage canals, because it would have flowed back again and again. "

Stephen Nelson is Professor of Geology at Tulane University in New Orleans.

"The wind has pushed the surface of the ocean towards the coast. We call this storm surge. It is a rise in sea level due to the wind of the hurricane. On the coast of the state of Mississippi, this storm surge reached almost nine meters. Here it was a maximum of six meters - but still enough to overflow the dykes and flood walls. "

He started asking questions after the hurricane. Because the dykes and flood walls of the city were designed for a hurricane of this strength. They should have withstood the storm surge.

"These are two satellite images taken before and after Katrina. You can see the Industrial Canal. We are about here now, at the flood wall. Beyond that you can see the Lower Ninth Ward. You can see the streets, there are a lot of trees and up." almost every property has a house. "

Then Stephen Nelson points to the second picture.

"This is a picture from August 31st, two days after Katrina. Here you can see that part of the flood wall is missing. There the masses of water broke through and tore away all the houses on the other side of the dike. Further back you can see that the houses cross and stand across. That's because they were built on stilts, tore themselves away by the waves and turned into floating boats. "

The protective walls along the canal were lower than they should have been, says Stephen Nelson. The Army Corps of Engineers responsible for the construction simply miscalculated during the planning and assumed an incorrect height above sea level. So the water washed over the walls and softened the soil on the land side. The steel and concrete walls lost their hold and fell over. The first tidal wave buried the district under six meters of water. Many residents had fled to the emergency shelters such as the Superdome and the conference center in the city center. But there was a lack of food, electricity and running water, as the news channel MSNBC reported:

"We heard of events at the conference center this morning and sent one of our camera crews there. What you're about to see is the sheer desperation of hundreds of citizens. We've had to cut out the worst scenes."

Resident of New Orleans: "During the day we had protection, but at night, without electricity and light, there was no one here to protect us!"

People have to stay in the emergency shelters for days. Media reports of rape, looting and assault. Only gradually does the full extent of the catastrophe become visible. 80 percent of the city is flooded. Tens of thousands of houses are flooded and some of them stand under water for weeks. More than 1,800 people die.

"Epidemics and the like are spreading"

There's been a lot of speculation as to why New Orleans was hit so badly, says Simon Boxall. The marine researcher studies tropical cyclones and their consequences at the University of Southampton in Great Britain.

"Of course, it doesn't help to be below sea level. But the central question is to what extent the flood protection of the city worked. There have been numerous indications that the dykes and flood walls were not suitable. And if such protection systems fail, they will themselves." the problem. New Orleans is surrounded by dikes and walls. If water penetrates there, these dikes keep the water in the city. Then you have stagnant water that quickly becomes very unpleasant. Epidemics and the like spread. "

It took many weeks to pump the water out of the city. And much longer before people were allowed to return to their homes, recalls Stephen Nelson. It dragged on for a particularly long time in the Lower Ninth Ward.

"They didn't let people into the district until mid-December. And then, almost four months after the hurricane, they were allowed to come, but they still couldn't live here. Because there was no more electricity, the sewage system was destroyed, just like the drinking water pipes. It took until March to restore these systems. "

In the following years the destroyed flood walls were rebuilt and an almost three kilometer long storm surge barrier was built on the eastern edge of the city. It was supposed to seal off the city from the canals that brought the water masses into the city center during the hurricane.

Stephen Nelson's car moves away from the city center and heads for a narrow farm road that ends in front of a large, gray wall of levees.

The geologist gets out and follows a path up to the top of the wall. Beyond the levee are the elongated bodies of water of the Gulf Intracoastal Waterways and the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet Canal. The new, almost eight meter high storm barrier runs straight through it.

"We are now outside the hurricane protection system. You can see the two flood gates that are closed when the tide is high. The storm barrier stretches from here in an arc to the back of the bank and closes the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet Canal that you are in See in the distance. "

The Mississippi River Gulf Outlet Canal, which is more than 120 kilometers long, was built in the middle of the 20th century to enable ships to access the port of New Orleans directly from the Gulf of Mexico - without having to drive up the winding Mississippi. However, the canal was hardly accepted and turned into an economic disaster. After Katrina, the decision was made to close it completely. Construction of the new protection system began in 2009 and cost the equivalent of more than 1 billion euros. It made the city safer, says Stephen Nelson.


Scene of destruction (picture alliance / dpa - Bevil Knapp)

Ten years have passed since the disaster. Right after Katrina, the city's population had slumped by almost half. Today 380,000 of the original 450,000 people live in New Orleans again. In Jackson Square in the heart of the city, street musicians vie for the favor of tourists. Tour buses and motorcades push their way through the narrow streets of the French Quarter. The oldest neighborhood in New Orleans, unlike the rest of the city, is above sea level and was not flooded during Katrina. But even the lower-lying residential areas of the predominantly wealthy white population look again today as if the catastrophe never happened.

However, further away from the city center, Stephen Nelson drives his car through deserted streets. Wild garbage dumps to the right and left, between empty, overgrown properties. Nobody can be seen.

In front of a concrete foundation, from which a staircase leading into the void protrudes, the geologist gets out and lights a cigarette.

"This is the Lower Ninth Ward, the most devastated part of town and the slowest recovering since Katrina."

The researcher estimates that 25,000-30,000 people would have lived here before the storm. Now it might be 1,000. Most of the former residents could not return.

"Nobody in the US is required to insure themselves against floods. And this is a working-class neighborhood. The Army Corps of Engineers built the flood walls and told them they were safe. So many thought the $ 300 for I can also use the insurance to send my children to school or something like that. Very few were insured against floods. "

Because of this, people lacked the money to rebuild their homes. There were aid payments from the federal government for the flood victims, but these were subject to conditions.

"The most important of these rules was, you had to prove that you owned the property. Well, if the deed was in your house, and your house is now in ruins all over St. Bernard Parish, you have quite a problem with that to prove. "

In addition, the people here often had no title deeds even though they owned the land, says Mark Davies. The lawyer heads the Institute for Water Management Law and Policy at Tulane Law School in New Orleans.

"It was traditionally a poor, less well-served part of the city. Here people handled their affairs in their own way. When the grandmother died, the first thing they did not run to the court for a will and a deed of real estate was to run just get together in the family and decide among themselves who inherits the house. From a cultural point of view, that's absolutely fine. "

Legally, however, it creates massive problems. The laws were simply not written for the people of the Lower Ninth Ward, says Mark Davies. Katrina made this particularly clear.

More hurricanes are to be expected

The hurricane displaced the poor African American population and made New Orleans a whiter, richer city. A city that will continue to be threatened by storm surges in the future. The new hurricane protection system alone will not help, says coastal researcher John Day from Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge.

"The wetlands on the coast, especially when they are forested, form a very effective buffer against storms. They slow down storm surges. Much of the damage caused by Katrina was where these forests are now missing. They perished because Artificial canals were dug in the coastal marshes to facilitate navigation, but these canals brought with them salt water that kills the trees. We estimate that an intact forest here would have reduced flooding in the city by 80 percent. "

New Orleans was built in the Mississippi Delta. But this delta is getting smaller and smaller. The river is dammed and canalized in many places, so that it hardly brings any more sediments and no new land is created. At the same time, the ocean gnaws at the delta and the sea level rises. Every 45 minutes at the gates of New Orleans, land disappears from the surface of a football field in the ocean.

"I was absolutely certain that this would be the time when those responsible say: 'This is not right, we have to change something!' I mean, tens of thousands of houses were under water during the storm. I would have thought they'd get the new houses built on higher ground, but in the end they rebuilt New Orleans almost exactly as it was before. The houses are up on the ground, below sea level. And the next high tide will come. "

John Day suspects that in 100 years there will be hardly any people living in New Orleans.

"Personally, I don't think most of the city will survive. But the closer you get to New Orleans, the more people won't believe it."

They denied the risk even though sea levels were rising and more and more land was being lost. And storms like Katrina could also occur more frequently in the future, says ocean researcher Simon Boxall.

"There is a theory that if the oceans warm from climate change - and there is evidence of that - there will be more and more severe hurricanes."

In the short term, there are always fluctuations, with particularly quiet years and those with an unusually high number of hurricanes. In the long run, however, the number and intensity of tropical storms will increase. At some point even the highest dams will no longer be able to save New Orleans.

However, Simon Boxall is much more concerned about flat islands and coasts in other regions of the world. After all, New Orleans is in one of the richest countries in the world. And coastal protection is expensive.

"Nature is incredibly powerful, and it is impossible to protect yourself from all natural forces. But you can minimize the damage. That is expensive, but feasible for rich countries like the USA or Europe. The problem becomes dramatic when these become stronger and stronger tropical storms will hit poor countries that cannot afford expensive coastal protection. Especially flat islands will then feel the full force of the typhoons and hurricanes. "

But the name Katrina will never be borne by a storm again. The hurricane caused so much damage and such high death toll that the World Meteorological Organization removed "Katrina" from the list of names for tropical cyclones forever in 2006.