In August of 2005, the Gulf Coast and the city of New Orleans were forever changed when Hurricane Katrina struck, causing severe damage from Florida to Texas. This page is designed to help you understand the places that were affected by the storm and how a series of decisions made throughout history led to the destruction of the property and livelihoods of people living in the region, as well as taking more than 1,800 lives.
Click the points of interest on the interactive map above to learn more about each location. Use the timeline to understand the circumstances that led to the failure of the levees and click through to the resources below to learn more about hurricanes, natural disasters and what the Gulf Oil Spill could mean for the region.
THE MISSISSIPPI RIVER
The Mississippi River defines the geography of New Orleans. Uptown, downtown, the west bank and the east bank, all refer to a neighborhood’s location in relation to the river. In 1717, when the city was originally built, the spot chosen by the river offered the best protection from flooding in the area. However, as the city grew, residents inevitably settled in lower flood-prone zones, and more of the city required protection from the river floods with a system of levees and canals.
During Katrina, many of those protections put in place for homes and businesses failed, leading some to posit that the ensuing disaster was not natural, or a result of a hurricane, but man-made, the result of three hundred years of manipulating the river to suit commercial interests.
THE FRENCH QUARTER
New Orleans’ French Quarter was established in 1718 by military officer Jean Baptiste Bienville. Bienville laid out the area in an organized grid of streets with a central area — now called Jackson Square — that once served as a military parade ground. Most of the original French structures in the Quarter were destroyed during fires in 1788 and 1794. By that time, the Spanish were in charge of New Orleans, so most of the existing architecture reflects Spanish style and preferences — including the famous cast iron balconies and galleries — not to mention strict fire codes.
Since the Vieux Carre is one of the oldest areas in the city, it is also built on some of the highest ground and was spared from flooding during Katrina. Today, the area is popular with tourists for its many restaurants, shops and art galleries.
The Louisiana Superdome opened in 1975 after the NFL awarded New Orleans the twenty-fifth professional football franchise: The New Orleans Saints. The 1978 Super Bowl was played in the stadium, despite the fact that the Saints football team had no hope of playing in it. The Saints’ unfortunate record greatly improved during the 2009-2010 season, and they saw their first Super Bowl and national championship in a stunning success that came to represent the resurgence of the city after Katrina.
The victory was felt deeply by the people of New Orleans because the dome, the Saints’ home stadium, sheltered thousands of people and took on significant damage, both from the storm and as a result of housing thousands with inadequate resources during the disaster.
THE INDUSTRIAL CANAL
The Industrial Canal is a shipping channel that connects the Mississippi river to Lake Pontchartrain and splits the Upper and Lower Ninth ward. The canal opened in 1923 and contains slips and docks to function as a harbor. It also connects to the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet (MR-GO), the shipping channel that provides a shortcut from the city of New Orleans to the Gulf of Mexico.
During Hurricane Betsy in 1965, its levees broke, flooding the Lower Ninth Ward, as they did in 2005 during Katrina, when the breach was more than a quarter of a mile long.
ST. BERNARD PARISH
Unlike most states, Louisiana has parishes instead of counties. New Orleans is located in Orleans Parish, and St. Bernard Parish is just to the southeast. Spanish settlers arrived in the area around 1870, and it was the main location for the Battle of New Orleans during the War of 1812. In 1927, officials decided to dynamite part of a levee protecting the area in an effort to save the city of New Orleans during the Great Mississippi River flood, instead covering most of St. Bernard and Placquemines Parishes with water.
During Katrina, the eye of the hurricane passed directly over it, pushing storm surge into the MR-GO and breaching the levees that protected the parish and damaging or destroying nearly everything there.
THE NINTH WARD
The Ninth Ward of New Orleans is a unique neighborhood in a city comprised of other distinctive neighborhoods. Established in the middle of the nineteenth century, when New Orleans city boundaries were mapped, the area had a high percentage of working-class African-American homeowners living there. A number of famous musicians, like Fats Domino and Kermit Ruffins, and athletes like Marshall Faulk also grew up in the area.
Due to its geographical position in the city — the Industrial Canal runs through the area and its elevation is at sea level — it has flooded repeatedly and devastatingly, during both Hurricane Betsy in 1965 and Katrina in 2005.
Lake Pontchartrain, named for a cabinet minister during the reign of Louis XIV in France, is a brackish estuary connecting the Gulf of Mexico and the Rigolets strait. In the 1920s, when the Industrial Canal was built, it was connected with the Mississippi River. It’s causeway, the longest bridge over a body of water in the world, connecting the New Orleans suburb of Metairie with the North Shore of the lake.
During Hurricane Betsy in 1965, the storm surge from the lake overtopped levees and caused flooding in the Ninth Ward, prompting an improvement to the levee system. They were built higher and stronger, but only strong enough to withstand a category three storm. During Katrina, a category three storm, experts determined that the levees were not topped — they broke — because the foundations were not strong enough to hold the water back.
THE 17TH STREET CANAL
The 17th Street Canal has its origins as a drainage system first built in the 1850′s alongside railroad lines. As the city grew, the need for more livable, dry land did too, and the canal capacity was increased and pumping stations were added, making it possible to move water from the canal into Lake Pontchartrain.
During Katrina, the levee on the New Orleans side of the canal was breached, contributing to the flooding of the city. After the storm, sonar readings revealed that the foundations of the canal levees were about seven feet short of the engineering specifications that would ensure protection from the amount of water the levee was expected to contain.
THE MISSISSIPPI RIVER-GULF OUTLET
The Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet (MR-GO) is a 76-mile-long canal that allows for a fast route between the Gulf of Mexico and New Orleans, enabling ships to avoid navigating the Mississippi river, which can be hazardous and time-consuming. It was opened in 1963 and cuts through miles of wetlands causing environmental damage. It also creates a virtual highway for storms by pushing water from the Gulf into the New Orleans area.
The MR-GO has been closed since 2009 and there are plans to potentially build a permanent barrier against future hurricanes.
New Orleans wasn’t the only location along the Gulf Coast affected by Katrina. Waveland, Miss., about 55 miles east of New Orleans, was ground zero for Katrina’s landfall and the town was virtually destroyed by the hurricane, as it was during Hurricane Camille in 1965.
The tiny community of about 6,000 is still rebuilding, like others towns along what’s been dubbed by some the hurricane highway.
THE DEEPWATER HORIZON
The Deepwater Horizon is an oil drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico. On April 20th, 2010, it exploded, killing 11 people and injuring 17. The oil rig also spilled 4.9 million barrels of oil into the Gulf before being plugged on July 15th, 2010.
The full environmental impact of the spill remains to be seen, but the fishing and tourism industries along the Gulf were severely affected in the immediate aftermath of the spill. The U.S. government required BP to create a fund, totaling $20 billion, for businesses harmed by the oil spill.