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19 Aug 15 15:18

Hurricane Katrina left a lasting impression on me. At the time, I was a graduate student at Texas Tech University on the hurricane research team collecting data for my PhD dissertation. We would deploy instrumentation along the coast to measure the atmospheric conditions as hurricanes made landfall to mitigate their effects on life and property. 2004 had proven to be a very active year for the team, with deployments during Hurricanes Charley, Ivan, Frances, and Jeanne. And 2005 was proving no different, with early deployments in Hurricanes Dennis and Emily. Then there was Katrina. As we drove towards coastal Louisiana and Mississippi, something felt different. Things I would usually observe in the days and hours before a hurricane landfall, like homeowners and businesses boarding up their windows, people packing and preparing to evacuate, I simply didn't see much of. Others on the team noticed too. Little did we realize the scale of the devastation that was to ensue.

After deploying our instrumentation throughout coastal Louisiana and Mississippi, we took shelter in a hotel on Highway 90 in Gautier, about 18 miles east of Biloxi, Mississippi, to ride out the storm. So far, it was a typical deployment, except for that nagging feeling that this time was somehow different. As Katrina began to come onshore, the wind and rain picked up and the conditions steadily worsened over time. We watched as the hotel's carport and the roof on a neighboring building began to succumb to the force of the wind. We expected this, as this sort of damage was typical within a hurricane and what we often saw out in the field. What we didn't expect to see were boats floating down Highway 90, and water up to the roof eaves of the home across the street. The sheer volume of water being pushed inland by Katrina was astounding, and I wondered how much more severe it was further west in the heart of the storm.

After the storm passed, I was heartbroken when it became clear how widespread the devastation was. Places we'd been to along the coast in Biloxi and Gulfport during other deployments were left as slabs of concrete. There were reports of people trapped in their homes and on rooftops due to the flooding, and of thousands of people stranded at the Superdome in horrendous conditions. Federal, state, and local agencies were seemingly slow to respond. And the effects of Katrina continued to cascade long after returning to Texas Tech, as Lubbock (and many other communities) became the home to hundreds of refugees from New Orleans who had nothing but the clothes on their backs. Even now, a decade later, many neighborhoods in Mississippi and Louisiana still haven't recovered from the devastation Katrina left behind.

Many experts are of the mind that Katrina was as much a man-made disaster as it was a natural disaster, and it served as a catalyst in many ways. It helped initiate the discussion of community resilience, demonstrated gaps in emergency management and response, highlighted weaknesses of the National Flood Insurance Program, and brought about changes in the insurance industry. Even though the US has been in a nearly 10-year drought of major hurricane landfalls, another landfall is inevitable. However, the outcome doesn't have to be the same. Continuing to apply the lessons learned from Katrina will ensure that the next storm will be less catastrophic.

(Photos by Kirsten Orwig, taken along Highway 90 near Gautier, MS)

Category: Climate/natural disasters: Disaster risk, Floods/storms, Resilience

Location: Mississippi, United States

1 Comment

Urs Leimbacher - 26 Aug 2015, 2:28 p.m.

Thanks, Kirsten, for this contribution! 10 years on, it's important to both remember the tragedy and look at the lessons learned from this natural disaster.

Actually, Switzerland in 2005 experienced flood loss event of comparable dimension in terms of percentage of GDP of the total damage incurred. This triggered substantial political action to analyse and map flood risk areas, to build flood protection barriers, to make the network of flood sensors much denser and - based on this improved data - to substantially increase the efficiency of overall "flood risk steering" and high-water management in the event of flood.

This has contributed to less heavy losses with similar heavy floods post-2005.

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