When Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast 10 years ago, it would become the costliest natural disaster in U.S. history, causing an estimated $108 billion in damages.
It would also be one of the deadliest. The storm caused approximately 1,833 deaths across five states, with the most casualties in Louisiana: 1,577.
Katrina was a Category 3 hurricane when it slammed into Louisiana Aug. 29, 2005, but the damage and devastation would be compounded by a series of human failures: an inadequate levee system that collapsed under a surging storm, leaving 80 percent of New Orleans underwater; a poorly organized evacuation plan that left many residents—mostly black and mostly poor—stranded; and a slow relief response by local and federal governments that made hurricane survivors feel as though they had been abandoned.
We look back at nine key figures who responded to the disaster in Louisiana 10 years ago, what they did during Katrina and what they have been doing since then.
1. President George W. Bush
During Katrina: As Katrina headed toward the Gulf Coast, President Bush was vacationing at his ranch in Texas. On Aug. 27, 2005, he declared a federal state of emergency, giving the Department of Homeland Security and Federal Emergency Management Agency authority to respond. Bush, along with FEMA Director Michael Brown and Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff, had been warned that the levees might be breached.
Two days after the storm hit, Bush flew over New Orleans and parts of Mississippi while returning to Washington, D.C., after cutting his vacation short. A few days later, he signed a $10.5 billion relief package and met with Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco and New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, who had called in to a local radio station to demand that the feds “get off [their] asses” and send help to the residents of his city.
Five days after the hurricane made landfall, Bush finally acknowledged the government’s failure to send help quickly, saying, “The results are not acceptable.” Over the next several days, he dispatched 7,200 active-duty troops to the region and requested $51.8 billion in emergency funding from Congress, which was approved.
Post-Katrina: The Bush administration’s botched response to Katrina remains one of the biggest stains on the president’s legacy. A congressional report on the response to Hurricane Katrina, “A Failure of Initiative” (pdf), noted that “critical elements of the national response plan were executed late, ineffectually or not at all.”
When Bush left office in 2009, he and his family returned to Texas. He is currently a public speaker and released his memoir, Decision Points, in 2010.
Bush is scheduled to visit New Orleans with former President Bill Clinton to commemorate the 10-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.
2. Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco
During Katrina: On Aug. 26 Blanco declared a state of emergency. On Aug. 27 Blanco, along with other officials from the southeastern-Louisiana parishes, held a press conference to encourage residents to evacuate.
After Katrina made landfall and the levees broke in New Orleans, throwing the city into complete chaos, many pointed at Blanco and her poor communication with Mayor Nagin and the federal government as the main reason help to the city was slow to come. One of her decisions in particular—not to federalize relief efforts—would draw the ire of Nagin.
But Blanco placed the blame squarely on the federal government.
“I wasn’t aware in those days that there was some intentional stalling going on in Washington,” she said. “I felt like I had to ask more times than should have been necessary. [Looking back,] I guess I would try to put more pressure on the feds to intensify the rescue efforts. I would do something different to get their attention.”
Post-Katrina: Because of the outrage over her response to Katrina, Blanco did not seek a second term in 2007. In 2014 Blanco, the first woman elected governor of Louisiana, was inducted into the Acadian Museum’s Order of Living Legends in recognition of her work to promote French culture in the state. In May 2015 she was honored at the Louisiana Legends gala, which recognizes the best and brightest of Louisiana who have distinguished themselves and brought honor to the state.
3. New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin
During Katrina: On Aug. 27 Nagin addressed the city of New Orleans in a special press conference with Gov. Blanco and other officials to urge residents to evacuate. During the conference, he acknowledged that many residents lacked transportation to flee, and informed residents that the Superdome would be opened as a shelter of last resort for those with special needs. He encouraged evacuees who planned to stay there to bring their own food, drinks and other necessities.
On Aug. 28 he issued the first-ever mandatory evacuation of New Orleans.
With tens of thousands of people gathering at the Superdome, Nagin pleaded with the federal government on CNN for assistance, saying, “This is a desperate SOS.” On Sept. 1 he lashed out at the federal government during an interview with New Orleans radio station WWL-AM, full of anger and grief at its lack of urgency. Many point to this interview as the moment the government’s response began to pick up.
When Blanco declined to federalize relief efforts, Nagin criticized her decision, saying, “There was this incredible dance between the governor and the president about who had final authority.”
In January 2013 Nagin was indicted on 21 corruption charges, including wire fraud, conspiracy, bribery, money laundering and filing false tax returns related to bribes from city contractors. The next year, Nagin was convicted on 20 of 21 charges and was sentenced to 10 years in federal prison. He reported to the Federal Correctional Institution Texarkana in Texas Sept. 8, 2014.
Earlier this year he appealed to the courts to have his conviction overturned, based on flawed instructions given to the jury.
4. Director of FEMA Michael Brown
During Katrina: Brown, who was often described as unqualified to run FEMA, was designated the principal federal official, or PFO, to manage the response and recovery operations for Hurricane Katrina on Aug. 30 by Secretary Chertoff.
Despite the infamous moment of praise from President Bush—“Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job”—Brown was completely overwhelmed by the challenges of managing the crisis and would give media interviews in which he appeared absolutely clueless about the level of suffering going on in New Orleans. Brown would bear most of the blame for the government’s inadequate relief response.
On Sept. 9 Brown was replaced by U.S. Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen as PFO, and three days later he resigned as director of FEMA.
Post-Katrina: In 2011 Brown released the book Deadly Indifference: The Perfect (Political) Storm: Hurricane Katrina, the Bush White House, and Beyond, in which he tells his side of the story. He is currently a public speaker and host of The Michael Brown Show.
5. Lt. Gen. Russel L. Honoré, 33rd Commanding General of the U.S. 1st Army
During Katrina: On Aug. 30 the Pentagon established the Joint Task Force Katrina, headquartered in Mississippi, and designated Honoré as the commander. His role was to combine FEMA and military operations and provide relief to the Gulf Coast.
Dubbed the “Category 5 General,” Honoré directed an estimated 20,000 National Guard troops in New Orleans. He immediately set the tone and a new direction by ordering troops to put their weapons down—which was met by cheers—turning them from a policing presence into a rescue force that needed to help survivors.
Post-Katrina: In 2012 he published the book Leadership in the New Normal, on how to be an effective leader in the 21st century. The same year, the Southern University and A&M College System (of which Honoré is an alumnus) and the state of Louisiana established the Honoré Center for Undergraduate Student Achievement to reverse the trend of fewer African-American men graduating from college, while also increasing the number of male certified classroom teachers in urban settings.
Today Honoré is a senior scientist with the Gallup Organization, business consultant, public speaker and CNN contributor on topics related to disaster preparedness.
6. U.S. Secretary Michael Chertoff, Department of Homeland Security
During Katrina: After Katrina hit land, Chertoff indicated that he was aware that the levees failed. On Aug. 31 he said that he was extremely pleased with the response of the federal government. Three days later he claimed that no one could have predicted Katrina, despite repeated warnings from scientists and others. The congressional report on Katrina noted several failures by the secretary that hampered the government’s response.
Post-Katrina: He left his post in 2009, a day after President Obama was inaugurated, and co-founded the Chertoff Group the same year, where he also serves as executive chairman. The company provides business and government leaders with risk identification, analysis and mitigation; crisis management; and strategic counsel.
7. U.S. Coast Guard Vice Adm. Thad Allen
During Katrina: When the storm came ashore, Allen was chief of staff for the U.S. Coast Guard. In this role he ran the Coast Guard headquarters and was responsible for all worldwide Coast Guard activities. The U.S. Coast Guard was one of the few government agencies to be highly praised for its rescue efforts.
Allen, who was appointed deputy principal official to FEMA’s Michael Brown by Secretary Chertoff, was in charge of Hurricane Katrina search-and-rescue and recovery efforts and sent to Baton Rouge, La., to see if he could improve the overall response in New Orleans.
“What we [the government] did was declare a disaster after a hurricane came ashore, and we poured resources into New Orleans for over a week,” he told The Root. “But the real problem was that the city of New Orleans had lost continuity of government, their command-and-control capability, and they didn’t have the capacity to marshal all the forces that were down there, then apply them with a continuity of effort.”
To solve this issue, he collaborated with Honoré, and they made an agreement to work in a united fashion. Their focus was to create the capability and capacity for local leaders to carry out their responsibilities, which stabilized response efforts.
On Sept. 9, Chertoff replaced Brown with Allen, who was given command of the response efforts for the entire Gulf Coast.
Allen’s main takeaway from Katrina was that factors that previously created vulnerabilities will be exacerbated when you have a disaster such as a hurricane. He said that it boils down to resiliency, which is the ability of individual people or communities to take care of themselves for a few days after a disaster, including providing food, water and medicine.
“I’ve always felt that the best metaphor for resiliency was the human immune system. If you have a strong immune system and you catch a virus, you will get well and get on with the rest of your life,” he said. “If you don’t have a solid immune system, you have more problems; you can actually die. I think we need to start thinking about resiliency on an individual and community level as the equivalent of the immune system.”
Post-Katrina: In Jan. 2010 he led the Coast Guard’s response to the earthquake in Haiti, and in May of that year President Obama appointed him the national incident commander in charge of the nation’s response to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. He officially retired from the Coast Guard June 30, 2010.
Today Allen is an executive vice president at Booz Allen Hamilton, which is a strategy-and-technology consulting firm. His focus is on homeland-security issues, cybersecurity, issues related to national resiliency, consulting on crisis leadership and public speaking about these topics.
8. Common Ground Relief
During Katrina: Founders of the grassroots organization—New Orleans community organizer Malik Rahim, a former Black Panther, and Brandon Darby and Scott Crow, activists from Austin, Texas—were motivated to provide relief for hurricane victims in addition to support for rebuilding New Orleans.
On Sept. 5, less than a week after the levees were breached, Darby, Rahim and Crow formed Common Ground Relief. They set up a health clinic and women’s shelters, established food-and-water-distribution centers (with a total of nine centers in seven southern-Louisiana parishes), fed residents and gutted 3,000 homes, businesses and churches in the 9th Ward.
“Hurricanes like this change everything,” Executive Director Thomas Pepper told The Root. “There is a concerted effort to make communities whole again. So it shifted everybody’s focus from themselves at a particular time to their neighbors and friends and family members who were suffering through the storm in the aftermath.”
Post-Katrina: Pepper said that the organization’s current efforts are focused on job training and rebuilding, wetlands education and a wetlands-restoration program. It has a school wetlands education program that is taught in grades K-12, and also restores marshlands through grass and tree plantings for a variety of government agencies. The group’s goal is to prevent the gradual caving in or sinking of specific areas of land to rebuild the disappearing coastline. According to Pepper, Louisiana loses the equivalent of a city block in midtown Manhattan every two-and-a-half hours.
He mentioned that their efforts are still a struggle, adding, “We’re still trying to make the community whole, and just from our experience in the Lower 9th Ward, we know that with this coastal-restoration-area effort [that’s getting ready to start], we know that there are going to be marginalized communities from New Orleans down to the coast that potentially could be left behind.” He added, “It’s really important that we reach out and try to create community-led, community-based efforts for them to fight the effects of coastal erosion and subsidence.”
9. New Orleans Police Superintendent Edwin “Eddie” Compass III
During Katrina: Compass was on the front lines of the disaster, assisting at the Superdome and the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, participating in lifesaving missions in boats and reporting to the media. But the New Orleans Police Department was overwhelmed because about 250 officers failed to report for duty.
Compass, who was criticized for failing to keep order after Katrina hit, and raising fears by making unconfirmed reports of crime to the media, announced on Sept. 27, 2005, that he was retiring.
Post-Katrina: Compass declined to be interviewed for this article but indicated that for the last eight years, he has been working with Louisiana’s Recovery School District as executive director of safety and security. He acts as a liaison between the schools and students in addition to coordinating the active-shooter and intruder program. The district oversees nearly 60 schools in New Orleans, a dozen in Baton Rouge and a few in Shreveport.