Katrina was one of the most devastating storms in the history
of the United States. The American Red Cross launched the
largest mobilization of resources in its history for a single
natural disaster. Hurricane Katrina left a widespread trail
of devastation in its wake in the worst-affected Gulf states
of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, and particularly the
city of New Orleans.
t looked like just another quiet Sunday on 28 August in Ocean
Springs, Mississippi, on the Gulf coast just east of Biloxi.
People are out for a jog, walking their dogs and cutting the
grass. It is almost as if the residents of this picturesque
old southern town do not know what is looming on the horizon.
Hurricane Katrina with its 280 kilometre-per-hour winds is
just a few hours away.
Matthew Patillo is 76. He and his wife have been residents
of Ocean Springs since 1947. He was hard at work on his front
porch with a hammer in hand, putting weathered plywood protection
on the windows of the home they built in 1951.
“I can’t remember how many storms this old house
has gone through; I just hope she has one more in her,”
he said. “We wanted to stay here, like always, but our
kids insisted we go to their home where we would be safer.”
They are packing up their store and moving out of harm’s
Hundreds of thousands of people evacuated from cities up
and down the Gulf coast, but some remained to ride out the
storm. Overnight and into the next day, Hurricane Katrina
would batter these communities and become one of the most
devastating storms in the history of the United States.
Ocean Springs and neighbouring towns like Biloxi and Gulfport
bore the full force of Hurricane Katrina. Almost 160 kilometres
west, the city of New Orleans was heaving a great sigh of
relief. What’s known as New Orleans’ luck, which
has helped the city survive potentially catastrophic storms
in the past, was thought to have protected the city again.
Katrina, on a direct path towards New Orleans, took a last
minute turn east, saving the city from the battering the Mississippi
coast received. Though the damage was extensive, the levees,
which keep the waters of Lake Pontchartrain to the east and
the Mississippi River to the west from flooding the city,
withstoodthe storm. However, in the early morning hours of
uesday, 30 August, reports began filtering out of New Orleans
about rising water in the streets. As people huddled in the
Superdome shelter or slept in their beds, thinking the worst
was over, the water from Lake Pontchartrain began filling
the city. By morning, New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin estimated
that 80 per cent of the city was flooded. The water continued
to rise until two days later when the water level in the city
equalled that of the lake. The flooding of the city, home
to over 1 million people, led to what is the largest forced
migration in the United States since the Civil War in the
In total, catastrophic damage caused by Hurricane Katrina
stretches across the south-eastern United States for 233,000
square kilometres. That is the approximate size of Great Britain.
The bridge from Ocean Springs to Biloxi, Mississippi,
was destroyed by the high winds and waves. All roads leading
in and out of Biloxi were destroyed or under water.
©Gene Dailey / American Red Cross
Evacuees from Hurricane Katrina fill the Astrodome
in Houston, Texas.
©Reuters / Richard Carson, Courtesy www.alertnet.org
Red Cross response
Hurricane Katrina landed on US shores on Thursday, 25 August,
slamming into the south-east coast of Florida, and north of
Miami. As a category one hurricane with sustained winds of
130 kilometres per hour, it rattled windows and downed power
lines, cutting electricity to 1.4 million homes. Local Red
Cross chapters responded, opening shelters where evacuees
found safe refuge, food, drinking water and comfort. The storm
passed swiftly south-west over the Florida peninsula and into
the Gulf of Mexico, leaving a path of debris.
As Hurricane Katrina stalled and strengthened over the warm
waters of the Gulf of Mexico, the American Red Cross began
mobilizing for what was to become the largest disaster response
in the history of the organization. Initially, more than 1,900
volunteers and the entire emergency response vehicle (ERV)
fleet were activated. In coordination with religious groups,
15 kitchens were mobilized and ten more were on standby with
the capacity to produce 500,000 hot meals
a day. These and other resources were moved to safe areas
so additional relief efforts could begin immediately after
the storm passed.
Shelters opened outside of the evacuation zone following
the evacuation order. More than 200 shelters housing
thousands of fleeing residents and tourists were open the
evening Hurricane Katrina made landfall. “We are prepared
at every level for what will likely be a catastrophic disaster,”
said Lois Grady-Wesbecher, manager of the Disaster Operations
Center at American Red Cross headquarters. “When Mother
Nature is at her worst, the American Red Cross is at its best.”
As the week progressed and the damage unfolded on televisions
across the United States and around the world, the American
Red Cross worked tirelessly
to build up the response. Ten days after Hurricane Katrina
made second landfall, the Red Cross had opened 707 shelters
and evacuation centres in 46 states and
had sheltered hundreds of thousands of people.
As of 14 September, the American Red Cross had served more
than 8.4 million meals and more than 6.6 million snacks to
storm victims and rescue workers. In addition to the food
provided at shelters, tens of thousands of people were being
served from 249 ERVs throughout Louisiana, Mississippi and
This extraordinary level of relief was provided by more than
5,000 trained Red Cross disaster specialists and thousands
of local volunteers. The American Red Cross also received
support from National Societies from around the world. Some
150 international disaster experts from the International
Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement were deployed in the United
States to support the American Red Cross operation on the
Other Red Cross and Red Crescent National Societies organized
fund-raising campaigns, activated their family linking services,
or sent money to support this massive relief operation.
“The American Red Cross is extremely grateful for
the timely help given by our international partners,”
said Marsha J. Evans, American Red Cross president and chief
executive officer. “Just as with the tsunami last year,
this shows the unique ability of the Movement to reach across
the globe, and provide relief wherever there is suffering.”
Thanks to the generosity not only of the United States, but
people and National Societies around the world, the donations
and pledges to the relief effort have been tremendous. Two
weeks after Katrina hit the Gulf coast, more than US$ 653.4
million had been received.
All out effort
The American Red Cross operation involved:
• More than 100,000 volunteers and staff.
• More than 2 million overnight stays in some 900 Red
• Emergency funds for 54,000 people.
• More than 8.5 million hot meals and 6.6 million snacks
served in the first two weeks.
Due to the scale of this disaster and the number of internally
displaced people and other victims, the American Red Cross
developed new ways to meet urgent needs. It established a
temporary housing programme for the tens of thousands of evacuees
who are without accommodation.
“Two weeks after the hurricane many people faced a
housing crisis. They may have gone to stay with family, but
they can’t stay there indefinitely. They may be in a
town where a small shelter is closing. Or the authorities
may have airlifted them to a city somewhere and put them in
a hotel for a set number of days,” said Michael Brackney,
manager of client service programme development for the American
“Rather than have these people uprooted again and
have them go to a shelter when their current situation runs
out, the Red Cross and government partners have arranged to
cover the cost of hotel accommodation and will continue that
support until other housing is available.”
This programme allows families already traumatized by the
loss of their homes and communities to remain in a place where
they feel safe and secure.
The Red Cross is working to establish a comprehensive system
to get financial assistance to every storm victim as soon
as possible. The assistance is received through a client assistance
card, which is similar to a debit card. These were distributed
to victims staying at shelters and through local Red Cross
chapters in cities where victims have relocated. Emergency
financial assistance from the American Red Cross is meant
to help victims survive until federal and state government
assistance becomes available.
The American Red Cross has also installed computers in its
shelters to speed the sometimes tedious but essential task
of registering shelter residents.
“We’re constantly working with our technology
partners to improve our service to disaster victims,”
said Steve Cooper, chief information officer for the American
Red Cross. “We look at every innovation for its ability
to help us help people more quickly and more efficiently.”
As the Red Cross collects information about each shelter
resident, the organization will be able to share that data
electronically internally and with other disaster relief agencies.
People will no longer have to register and re-register each
time they turn to the Red Cross, or other organizations, for
The American Red Cross has partnered with the ICRC to help
those who have been displaced and those looking for lost loved
ones. The partnership resulted in the Hurricane Katrina Family
Linking web site, which is hosted and managed by the ICRC.
By 14 September, more than 193,000 individuals had registered
either an “I’m Alive” message or the name
of the person they were searching for. While communications
were out of action in many areas following Katrina, this site
helped to reunite families and put loved ones at ease.
The Red Cross has launched a campaign to recruit 40,000
new volunteers by the end of November. These volunteers are
expected to assist directly in the relief effort and relieve
teams who have been there from the beginning. Later, they
will continue to serve with their local American Red Cross
chapters providing community services and responding to future
One volunteer in particular encapsulates the spirit of the
Movement. A young tourist stranded by Hurricane Katrina declined
an offer to be airlifted out by the Spanish embassy, opting
instead to help the American Red Cross relief efforts. Jose
Felipe Garrido Escudero, 21, of Madrid, had spent the summer
visiting a friend in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, and was scheduled
to leave New Orleans the day after Katrina hit. After seeing
the destruction and suffering, he said that his heart wouldn’t
let him leave without helping the American Red Cross relief
efforts in his temporary community.
Red Cross shelter in Birmingham, Alabama.
©Hector Emanuel / American Red Cross
New Orleans evacuee Nietsche Grant and her
2-year-old son Townsend have just received a Red Cross debit
card, 9 September 2005.
©Reuters / Richard Carson, Courtesy www.alertnet.org
The American Red Cross estimates that the Hurricane Katrina
relief effort will cost more than US$ 1 billion.
This unprecedented disaster requires a brave response, and
the Red Cross will be flexible as the needs of affected populations
“Regardless if it is a farmer in Ethiopia, a fisherman
in Sri Lanka, a restaurant worker in New Orleans or a doctor
in Bam, the first priority for victims is to reestablish their
livelihoods and to regain control over their lives, and they
should be supported in the recovery of productive assets,”
said Iain Logan, International Federation liaison in the international
coordination centre of the US Agency for International Development
in Arlington, Virginia.
“Nevertheless, post-disaster recovery should not be
a simple restoration of pre-existing livelihoods and infrastructure.
Instead, it should be treated as an opportunity to implement
better development policies to ‘build back better’
and to strengthen individual faith and confidence,”
The work has just begun. The challenge of recovery for individuals
is much greater. The American Red Cross is focusing all resources
on the emergency phase, which is likely to last at least 90
days. Once urgent disaster-caused needs are met, the Red Cross,
along with government and community partners, will assess
what longer-term needs exist.
Marissa Mahoney and Eva M. Calvo
Marissa Mahoney is American Red Cross press officer
in Washington DC.
Eva M. Calvo is International Federation press officer
No time to say goodbye
Lydia Breen lived in Algiers, one of the oldest neighbour-hoods
in New Orleans. She was uprooted along with thousands of others.
This is her description of the days following the hurricane.
They used to say we had the best block in the neighbourhood.
My front yard served as the community herb garden. The neighbours
next door kept a biscuit tin handy for passing dogs. Evenings,
we gathered on someone’s front porch to spin tales in
true Southern style — funny, eccentric, light-hearted.
When I was sick, there was always someone who offered me chicken
All that has changed now. Power lines and downed trees litter
the street. Houses without roofs. Flowerpots smashed. Broken
glass everywhere. Yet unlike other neighbourhoods, we had
no flooding, fires or gas explosions. But there was still
despair, fear and sorrow. In the immediate aftermath of the
hurricane, looters roamed the streets. Neighbours were held
at gunpoint, cars
hijacked, houses robbed.
When the order was given to evacuate the day before Katrina
hit, some of the people on my block refused to leave. They
thought they could tough it out. Others stayed behind because
they had no other choice. Many who stayed had no car, no money
for a ticket out. I was one of those people. But I got lucky.
A writer can go through sparse times. I am no exception.
As Katrina approached, my bank account was running on empty
and my car was doing even worse. Without transportation, I
considered my choices if a major hurricane hit. The Superdome
was out of the question: the thought of riding out the storm
in a building with thousands of others made me feel claustrophobic.
I decided to barricade myself into my house and sit out the
storm. But the weatherman’s warnings changed from serious
to dire. “This is not a test,” New Orleans Mayor
Ray Nagin said. ‘The Big One’ was on the way.
After listening to him, I knew I had to leave.
A young couple on the block — their baby, a 5-year-old
son and dog in tow — offered me a place in their car.
Without Stephanie and Aaron I don’t know what I would
We spent the night at a house with a number of Aaron’s
relatives, 65km north of New Orleans. As the hurricane passed
over us, it uprooted 20-metre-tall trees and pushed in the
front door. Telephone poles snapped like wooden matchsticks.
We survived the hurricane but news of the aftermath was startling:
levees were breached; the streets of New Orleans were filling
with water. In southern Louisiana, whole parishes disappeared.
The next day the babies were getting sick. There was no power
or water; it was hot and humid. Sanitary conditions were deteriorating
rapidly. It was time to head north.
High temperatures and long lines at the gas station tried
our patience, as did the horrifying radio accounts of the
squalid, desperate conditions of those left behind. I couldn’t
shake loose the realization that it could have been me.
We found help along the way. In Tupelo, Mississippi, the
Red Cross gave us food and clothes, diapers for the babies
and a toy for the 5-year-old. No lengthy forms to fill out:
our driver’s licence was proof enough of need. At the
Loundon County, Virginia Red Cross chapter I was given a US$
350 debit card to help me through my journey. I can use it
as I see fit — on food, clothes, transportation.
for the neighbours who already evacuated, most are getting
on with their lives. Some have been relocated by their companies.
They’ve already moved to other states and enrolled their
children in school. Others are in limbo, scattered around
the country living with family and friends. Odds are I’ll
never see many of them again. I didn’t have a chance
to say, “Goodbye. Good luck. Have a nice life.”
Lydia Breen is a freelance writer and video
producer based in New Orleans.