It’s Saturday afternoon, August 27th, 2005 in the offices of the Times-Picayune newspaper in New Orleans, Louisiana.
Environmental reporter Mark Schleifstein wades through the cubicles of his fellow journalists with a fresh cup of coffee. When he returns to his desk, he takes a seat… and pulls up a map on his computer.
As he waits for his bosses to arrive, he takes a long pull from his coffee… Mark reviews the color-coded map that shows the threat of flooding in New Orleans. As he scans the data, he feels a pit in his stomach. It’s not a new sensation. For years he’s been reporting that New Orleans is in serious danger. If a hurricane hits too hard or too close, water could easily overwhelm the levees protecting the city. And with the latest storm - this Hurricane Katrina - on its way to southeastern Louisiana, Mark believes the Times-Picayune readers need to be warned.
Mark swivels in his chair to greet the paper’s editor and publisher. The editor already knows what Mark wants, but the two don’t agree. The editor tells Mark he’s being an alarmist and assures him the levees aren’t a cause for concern.
Mark takes a deep breath and prepares to walk his editor through the information he’s gathered. But before he can… his phone rings. On the other end of the line is Max Mayfield, the Director of the National Hurricane Center.
Before even saying hello, Max starts firing off questions about the newspaper’s office building. He wants to know how tall it is, and what kind of winds it can withstand. Hearing these questions, Mark's blood runs cold. He asks, “what are you telling me, Max?” Max’s reply is even more chilling: “What do you think? This is the big one, and it’s coming right at you.”
Hurricane Katrina made its first landfall as a Category-1 storm on Thursday, August 25th. After moving across Florida, it reached the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico where it steadily grew more powerful. By Saturday afternoon, Katrina was close to becoming a Category-4, and the governors of Louisiana and Mississippi had declared states of emergency.
On Sunday, August 28th, the Mayor of New Orleans orders the first mandatory evacuation in the city’s history. Almost everyone who can, leaves. But roughly 100,000 people, many of them with no means of evacuating, are left behind when Hurricane Katrina hits land again and floods the city. In the days that follow, Hurricane Katrina will take more than 1800 lives and cause over $115 billion in damage, a tragic sequence of events that began on August 29th, 2005.
From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.
History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.
Today is August 29th, 2005: Hurricane Katrina Floods New Orleans.
Act One: The Storm Hits
It’s Saturday morning, August 27th, a little less than two days before Hurricane Katrina will hit Louisiana. Garland Robinette walks out of his favorite coffee shop and pauses for a moment, struck by the eery quiet.
Outside the coffee shop stands a big palm tree. And ordinarily, it's filled with green parrots. Each day, when Garland leaves the coffee shop, he’s used to hearing the sound of dozens of birds squawking. But today it’s silent, the birds are gone.
It’s been a couple of days since Hurricane Katrina hit Florida. At the time, it was a Category 1 storm on the 5-point rating scale, strong enough to do damage, but not as worrisome as a category 3 or 4 storm, and certainly not as bad as what New Orleaners call “The Big One”; a category 5 hurricane that many fear is inevitable.
As a radio host, Garland’s been following the news of the storm closely. He knows that the hurricane has been picking up steam since it entered the Gulf of Mexico. But still, he figured if this storm was something to worry about, the mayor would have announced an evacuation. So he wasn’t really worried about it… until now.
The absence of the parrots gives him goosebumps. He looks up into the tree first, and then up and down the block. There’s not a bird, cat, dog, or any animal in sight. Garland is hit with a sinking feeling that Katrina is going to be the big one. So as soon as he gets on the air, he warns his listeners to get out of New Orleans as fast as they can. And Garland was right to pay attention to the parrots. Within 24 hours, Hurricane Katrina will grow into a Category 5 hurricane.
The next day, the mayor of New Orleans does issue a mandatory evacuation order, a first in the city’s history. The city provides buses and almost 80% of the population manages to evacuate. But it’s not enough. Thousands of people are left behind. Many don’t have cars or if they do, they don’t have the money for gas. Some of those who remain are in prisons, shelters, nursing homes, or hospitals, making it impossible for them to leave. But some people stay by choice, including Garland Robinette.
He’s committed to staying on the air throughout the storm. Sunday evening, Garland broadcasts his show from a highrise building in downtown New Orleans. As he talks into the mic, the rain pours in the wind house. He takes calls from listeners all around New Orleans. Some describe the bumper-to-bumper traffic they experienced as they attempted to get out of the city. One caller explains how he tried to escape, but ran out of gas, and was forced to take shelter at the Superdome. This football stadium is designed as a shelter of last resort for the city. The caller says there are thousands of people there, waiting for the storm to pass. Garland thanks him for sharing the information and wishes him and his loved ones good luck.
Outside, the storm continues to rage. The windows strain as the wind pushes and pulls on them. And then suddenly, there’s a popping noise, as glass shatters everywhere. Garland’s studio is immediately filled with roaring winds. He feels like he’s standing in front of a jet engine. Quickly, he and the sound engineers rush out of the studio and find shelter. Garland is thankful no one is hurt. He’s shaken but determined to keep broadcasting.
He knows the people of the city are hungry for information and eager to share their stories. So he and the engineers find a closet in a safe location and continue broadcasting through the night. Garland tries to reassure his listeners. There will be terrible damage from the wind, he says, but it’s unlikely the city will experience a direct hit from Katrina.
But Garland’s prediction will not come to pass. Hurricane's course is unpredictable, constantly shifting, and early Monday morning, on August 29th, Hurricane Katrina makes landfall about 65 miles southeast of New Orleans with winds up to 145 miles per hour. Houses are flattened and trees are uprooted. The hurricane’s winds rip tiles off the roof of the Superdome, allowing rain to pour down on the thousands of people sheltering there. The storm also knocks out electricity in the city. But the worst damage won’t be from the rain or wind.
When Hurricane Katrina arrives, it brings with it a wall of water. Katrina’s storm surge, as it’s called, will be too much for the levees surrounding New Orleans. And soon, water will flood into the city. Garland and his crew rush to escape so they can continue broadcasting from a nearby town. But for the hundred thousand people still trapped in New Orleans, the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina is just beginning.
Act Two: Rescue Efforts
It’s late Monday, August 29th, 2005, in New Orleans.
The sun is starting to set as Robert McCoy and his fellow firefighters guide their rescue boat through the flooded streets, looking for signs of life.
The city of New Orleans is surrounded by a patchwork of levees to protect the city from storm surges. But many of these levees are old and feeble. And when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, they were no match for the wind and water. The levees breached and water from the Gulf of Mexico and Lake Pontchartrain began pouring into the city. The only remaining defense against the water were the pump stations throughout the city, but many of them failed. And soon, the lowest areas of New Orleans began flooding, covering neighborhoods in up to 15 feet of water. Hundreds drowned in the immediate aftermath. Thousands escaped to their roofs while others were trapped in their homes and attics.
So now firefighter, Robert McCoy, scours the area for survivors as his boat moves through murky brown waters. It's a hot and humid day. The air is thick and the stench is foul; a mixture of oil, sewage, and rot. Robert prays they don’t see any dead bodies. They’re under strict orders to focus their efforts on rescuing the living. But the thought of leaving the dead unattended doesn’t sit well with Robert; still, he knows he needs to help those he still can.
Suddenly, Robert hears a muffled cry for help. Up ahead, he sees a stranded man peeking his head out of a hole in the roof of his house. Robert and his team quickly maneuver the boat closer to the man. Robert climbs up on the roof with another firefighter. They each grab one of the man’s arms and groan as they lift his soaking body out of the hole in his partially submerged roof. But as they pull him up, they lose their grip. The man falls back to the roof, hard, rolling down the slanted slope and into the boat, with a hard thud, knocking him unconscious.
Robert rushes to help. The man's skin is wrinkled all over from spending hours in the water. He lifts the man up and pours some fresh water into his parched lips. And finally, the man starts to show signs of life. But he’s still disoriented. When Robert asks if he remembers what happened, the man tells Robert and the other firefighters his story.
That morning, the man explains, he was woken up by a gushing sound outside his door. He tried to escape, but the water was rising too fast. When he opened his front door, a torrent rushed in. He had nowhere to go but up. When Robert and his crew found the man, he’d been clinging onto the rafters of his house for ten hours with nothing to eat or drink. He thanks the firefighters for saving his life. And for a moment, Robert allows himself to feel proud. But he knows there are countless others waiting to be saved.
So Robert starts up his boat again, and heads toward the Superdome. With the city under water, it’s one of the few shelters available. He’ll take the man there, and then continue the search.
Robert and his fellow firefighters will spend the next few days trying to rescue as many people as possible. As they race to find and save their stranded neighbors, water will continue to pour into the city. By Wednesday, 80% of New Orleans is underwater. The New Orleans Fire Department and Police Department will lead the rescue efforts, joined by an army of volunteers. The U.S. Coast Guard will help as well, rescuing people stranded on their roofs by helicopter. But many in New Orleans wonder why there isn’t a more visible response from the federal government.
Meanwhile, lack of electricity hinders communication in and out of New Orleans. Throughout the city, people without food or water are struggling to find supplies. Some steal to survive. And soon, terrible rumors start to spread; exaggerated tales of looting and violence. This misinformation will be spread, in part, by New Orleans’ police chief and mayor, and then broadcast by cable news. In the resulting hysteria, some organizations pull back from providing aid. First responders like Robert, and many volunteers, will do everything they can to save lives. But for many in New Orleans, the misery will continue for days.
Act Three: Escape from the Superdome
It’s September 3rd, 2005, outside the Superdome football arena in New Orleans. A 35-year-old Black woman waits in a bus line with her mother, father, sister, and pet poodle.
She’s a middle school teacher. And even though she knew the storm was coming, she stayed in New Orleans to prepare for the first day of school. But she had no idea what she was in for. She barely survived the unthinkable disaster. And after she and her family were rescued from the roof of their home on Tuesday, they spent the next four days sheltering at the Superdome along with 15,000 other people.
The Superdome was well overcrowded. With no power, the heat inside the stadium became stifling. On top of that, the plumbing failed. There was no running water and the stadium’s bathrooms were soon overflowing. Each day, the woman and her family were given only two bottles of water and little else to hope for. But at last, she’s about to be free.
She cradles her poodle and wearily climbs the steps into the bus. The air conditioner is not strong, but it’s the closest thing to relief from the heat she’s felt in almost a week. Soon, the bus is pulling away from the Superdome and onto the highway. Looking out the window, the woman sees nothing but destruction; abandoned cars, broken trees, the tops of decimated buildings and houses, and brown water in every direction. She watches until the city recedes in the distance, and dry land finally emerges. She doesn’t know where this bus is taking her, she doesn’t care as long as it’s far away from New Orleans.
Hurricane Katrina was not the most powerful storm to ever hit the Gulf Coast, but it was the most destructive, causing more than $115 billion of damage. But more devastating than that, the storm and flood took more than 1,800 lives. Years later, people still debate who's to blame for the terrible toll, although most agree the government failed at every level; and the brunt of that failure was largely felt by people of color, and those without the means to flee. Ultimately, the hurricane did not only destroy lives and property but people’s faith in their government.
In the years after Katrina, the city of New Orleans is rebuilt; but almost 100,000 of its Black residents never return. Some have no homes to come back to; others can’t fathom returning to the site of such a traumatic event; their memories will be forever tarnished by the devastation that unfolded when Hurricane Katrina hit Louisiana and breached the levees on August 29th, 2005.
Next onHistory Daily: August 30th, 1918. Fanya Kaplan tries to assassinate the new leader of Soviet Russia, Vladimir Lenin, setting off the Red Terror.
From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.
Audio editing by Mollie Baack.
Sound design by Derek Behrens.
Music by Lindsay Graham.
This episode is written and researched by Ruben Abrahams Brosbe.
Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.