Katrina: A history of mistakes and missteps
William Covington | 8/27/2015, midnight
Early in the morning on Aug. 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast of the United States. As a result, the vibrant and cheerful city of New Orleans was quickly transformed into an underwater wasteland. In a matter of days, the world was reminded of mother nature’s devastating power and inevitability. As the storm progressed, historic landmarks were reduced to rubble; entire neighborhoods drowned under the overwhelming deluge of surging river water; lifeless bodies dotted the battered landscape; and throngs of displaced residents from the Lower 9th Ward and surrounding areas had to withstand inhumane living conditions before they were finally rescued and transported to safe zones. These heart-wrenching images won’t soon be forgotten by the American public. They illustrate the grim reality of human vulnerability and mortality.
On Saturday, the 10-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina will undoubtedly aggravate old wounds and stimulate new conversation about the importance of Black lives in America. To get the ball rolling, Our Weekly created a time-line of pivotal events connected to the storm.
African American slaves and state prisoners in New Orleans build artificial levees near the mouth of the Mississippi River to protect the young city from the ravages of floods. The levees measured only three feet tall in most locations but failed to contain the river during periods of heavy flooding. A levee is an embankment or wall built to protect areas from water; it is supposed to prevent the overflow of a river
Levee building remains in vogue along the Louisiana shores of the Mississippi. As settlers move into the territory north of New Orleans, levees are constructed. By 1812, levees have been built to safeguard 155 miles of land north of New Orleans on the east bank of the river and 180 miles north of the city on the west bank.
Violent storms in the northern United States dump tons of water into tributaries throughout the region that feed into the Mississippi.
LeRoy Percy and other plantation owners send their farm hands to raise the height of Washington County levees. Police round up African Americans in town at gunpoint and send them to raise and fortify the levee. Convicts are also pressed into action, and altogether a gang of 30,000 men work to save the levee.
April 29, 1927
With the river almost at the top of the levee, The federal government dynamites the Poydras Levee, creating a 1,500-foot break at an estimated cost of $2 million, to direct the flood waters away from the prosperous areas of New Orleans and into the St. Bernard and Plaquemines parishes. Future President Herbert Hoover was in charge of flood relief and made the call. The dynamiting of the levee and the subsequent flood expedited the northward migration African Americans, according to historian Garth Briscoe. Most historians
believe the decision to sacrifice the 9th Ward was not based on race but based on preserving the infrastructure of New Orleans. According to an article in the Washington Post, most of the one million residents impacted by blowing up the levee were White; other newspapers have also pointed out that there was a significant African American population in the 9th Ward. However, Briscoe pointed out that the issue was not race in 1927 but the hydrologic cycle (natural flow) of that river. It was part of public record that the 9th Ward was an excellent drainage point for river overflow geographically, if you needed to save the French Quarter by using dynamite. Briscoe says this knowledge was noted in 1922, when a levee was breached and water flowed into the 9th Ward.