Hurricane Katrina was one of the deadliest hurricanes ever to hit the United States. An estimated 1,836 people died in the hurricane and the flooding that followed in late August 2005, and millions of others were left homeless along the Gulf Coast and in New Orleans, which experienced the highest death toll.
Officials at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have said Katrina was the most destructive storm to strike the United States. It ranks sixth overall in strength of recorded Atlantic hurricanes. It was also a very large storm; at its peak, maximum winds stretched 25 to 30 nautical miles and its extremely wide swath of hurricane force winds extended at least 75 nautical miles to the east from the center.
How Katrina formed
Katrina initially formed over the Bahamas on Aug. 23, 2005, as a tropical depression. A well-defined band of storm clouds began to wrap around the north side of the storm's circulation center in the early morning hours of Aug. 24. With winds of about 40 mph (65 kph), the storm is named Tropical Storm Katrina.
By the time it made its way to southern Florida on Aug. 25, Katrina was a moderate Category 1 hurricane. While it caused some flooding and casualties — two people were killed — during its first landfall, it appeared to be just another hurricane in an active hurricane season. Katrina weakened after passing over Florida and was reclassified as a tropical storm.
But, once over water again, Katrina stalled beneath a very large upper-level anticyclone that dominated the entire Gulf of Mexico, and rapidly gained strength. Katrina re-intensified into a hurricane on Aug. 26, and became a Category Five storm on Aug. 28, with winds blowing at about 175 mph (280 kph). The storm turned north toward the Louisiana coast. The storm weakened to a Category 3 storm before making its second landfall along the Louisiana-Mississippi border on the morning of Aug. 29. [Infographic: Hurricane Katrina History and Numbers]
Katrina's front-right quadrant — which held the strongest winds — slammed into Gulfport and Biloxi, Miss., devastating both cities. Several levees in New Orleans collapsed and the city began to flood. Thousands sought refuge in the New Orleans Convention Center and the Superdome, which were overwhelmed. The National Guard was called in to help with evacuations.
Katrina weakened to a Category 1 hurricane after moving inland over southern and central Mississippi. It was downgraded to a tropical storm about six hours later just northwest of Meridian, Miss., but not before causing a tremendous loss of life and property damage across a wide area, extending beyond Louisiana and Mississippi into the Florida panhandle, Georgia, and Alabama.
Critics blamed an aging and neglected levee system and a slow response following the disaster for the high loss of life and damage. Many residents did not heed initial warnings to evacuate, putting a severe strain on rescue operations. [Related Article: What If Hurricane Katrina Hit New Orleans Today?]
Ultimately 80 percent of New Orleans and large portions of nearby parishes became flooded, and the floodwaters did not recede for weeks. Coastal areas, such as all Mississippi beachfront towns, sustained some of the worst devastation. Total property damage from Katrina was estimated at $81 billion, which was nearly triple the damage inflicted by Hurricane Andrew in 1992.
The rescue and recovery efforts following Katrina became highly politicized, with federal, state and local officials pointing fingers at one another. After initially receiving praise from then-president George W. Bush, the director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), Michael D. Brown, was forced to resign, as was New Orleans Police Department Superintendent Eddie Compass.
In particular, Mayor Ray Nagin came under severe scrutiny for his administration’s response in the aftermath of the disaster, but he vowed to rebuild. He was re-elected in 2006 but his second term saw a high rate of crime in the city and he faced many roadblocks from critics in his efforts to rebuild.
The region is still recovering, and government officials have sought to learn from the tragedy and implement better communications and evacuation policies. While many of the tourist areas such as the French Quarter have recovered, there are still neighborhoods just a short ride from the city where the effects of Katrina can still be seen.
— Kim Ann Zimmermann
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