Back to Magazine

Katrina’s deadly path

Hurricane 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.

I 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 way.

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 1860s.

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







American 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 Alabama.

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 ground.

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 Cross shelters.
• Emergency funds for 54,000 people.
• More than 8.5 million hot meals and 6.6 million snacks served in the first two weeks.

Red Cross innovation

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 Red Cross.

“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 assistance.

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 disasters.

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

Looking forward

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 evolve.

“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,” he emphasizes.

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 in Geneva.


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 soup.

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 have done.

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.

©Bradley Hague / American Red Cross As 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
Lydia Breen is a freelance writer and video producer based in New Orleans.


Contact Us