An immense storm filled television screens. A hurricane named Katrina had crossed Florida on Thursday, Aug. 25, 2005 and now covered the Gulf of Mexico. Forecasters warned it could intensify to Category 5 – with winds of 155 m.p.h. and storm surge of 18 feet or more. They predicted landfall around Pensacola, FL. Indications were that it might spare Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama.
Wary New Orleanians relaxed a bit, but on Saturday morning, Aug. 27, they woke to ominous news. The track had shifted westward 150 miles, now with a likely landfall near the vulnerable Crescent City. Thousands of residents, surprised by the sudden change, scrambled to evacuate.
‘Gasoline on a fire’
The enormity of the storm was hard to grasp. Forecasters said the effect of warm offshore waters on it was like “throwing gasoline on a fire.” Satellite imagery showed a system of huge proportions. Highest winds were clocked at 170 m.p.h. Nothing quite like it — not even hurricane Ivan, which brushed New Orleans in 2004 and lashed Florida twice – had occurred before.
When storms approach, Louisiana leaders coordinate an evacuation that must move a million people in a matter of hours. The options are few – I-10 east and west, I-55 and I-59 north. Officials try to order an evacuation early enough to allow people to clear the area, but not so soon that it becomes a false alarm if the storm swings in another direction. The evacuation decision is important for businesses as well as residents. A business cannot ignore an official call to leave, but if a storm does not materialize, businesses lose money, customers are inconvenienced and employees disrupted.
Louisianans were familiar with this dilemma and made their own risk calculations. Some waited longer than others, and for thousands there was little option except to stay. With a large blue-collar population, the number of people without automobiles totaled approximately 100,000.
Some escaped, some didn’t
Late Saturday or early Sunday, most New Orleans residents took to the road. The government’s “contra-flow” scheme, a mini-disaster itself in 2004 during hurricane Ivan, worked smoothly this time. Eventually, evacuees ended up all across the country, perhaps in every state, even oversees. Those who left endured being separated from loved-ones, searched for shelter, and struggled to get back to their homes and jobs.
For those left behind, the hardships were grimmer. Many found themselves trapped in the Superdome or Morial Convention Center. Public transportation failed, with dreadful results. Eventually it took the military, with a brigade of buses, helicopters, planes, boats and trucks, to carry victims from the ravaged city, but not before many were visited by unspeakable misery and death. Some Hibernia people and their families were among those left behind.
Katrina comes ashore
Katrina came ashore at 5:10 a.m., Monday, Aug. 29, in three places — Bay St. Louis, MS, St. Bernard parish and St. Tammany parish. By mid-afternoon, it had moved inland and evacuees in cities like Houston, Dallas and Atlanta began to heave a collective sigh of relief. Early accounts said a fierce windstorm had toppled trees, power lines, billboards and roofs, but that there was less rain and flooding than expected. Storm surge, widely feared, did not seem to have gone over the top of the levees. New Orleanians knew how to cope with such conditions, unpleasant as they were. Storms of varying severity over the years had brought unwelcome water into homes before.
Then, the flood
Late Monday and early Tuesday, grave reports began to be heard about floodwater rising in parts of the city. Some media outlets were out of commission, but the few still broadcasting had terrible news — the city was flooding after the storm had passed. Levee walls around drainage canals had failed.
Steve Hebert, Hibernia’s head of property management, could tell something was going wrong. He had ridden out the hurricane at 1111 Tulane Ave., in the heart of the city, at the bank’s main operations center. Monday afternoon, he and others cleaned up the little rainwater that had entered the building, perhaps 2-3 inches. But by the next morning, he was astounded to see an ugly brown sea surrounding him. The Hibernia Center was awash in 4½ feet.
Billions of gallons of stinking stormwater were surging across damaged canal barriers into unprotected residential streets. What was surprising was that levees along the Mississippi River and Lake Pontchartrain remained largely intact. The damage was to canals equipped with pumping stations, intended to drain excess rainwater out of the city.
These breaches were allowing water from the lake to rush into the city – the Upper and Lower 9th Wards, Lakeview, Lake Vista, Gentilly, eastern New Orleans, Chalmette and parts between. Only a few higher elevations were spared. As the flood reports mounted, disturbing news also filtered in from St. Bernard and Plaquemines parishes. They had been inundated by an enormous surge across a levee along the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet, a controversial manmade ship channel to the Gulf.
This catastrophe damaged Hibernia’s headquarters building, thousands of safe deposit boxes, its operations center and many branches throughout the strike zone.
If Katrina and the killer flood were not enough, less than a month later – at 2:30 a.m., Saturday, Sept. 24, 2005 – hurricane Rita roared onshore in Cameron Parish, about 278 miles west of New Orleans. Its strong outer bands also re-flooded parts of the city, causing more wind damage and slowing Katrina recovery efforts. In Lake Charles, Louisiana’s fifth-largest city, it caused extensive damage after most residents evacuated. In Cameron, the parish seat, a massive storm surge swept through whole buildings.
Katrina and the flood that followed created a “ground zero” of mayhem and misery in New Orleans. News accounts said it looked as if a huge bomb had exploded. Headlines told the story:
- Help us, please
- Relief effort too little, too late
- The storm we’ve always feared
The weeks that followed were bleak beyond description. Scattered across the country, New Orleanians learned about the conditions in their city through inconsistent and often sensational video bites. Looting on city streets, bodies in the water, and the despair and shock of thousands were in the news every day.
Where they went
It was very hard to gain a clear picture of it all. As time passed, residents who returned to damaged homes began to “get it.” The unique element for New Orleans, which had been hard to grasp, was the utterly unbelievable damage caused by three weeks flooded!
As many as 250,000 homes and buildings were wrecked. An estimated 1,200 people died. Nearly the entire population was gone. Oily, fetid water covered much of the city. “In many neighborhoods of every economic stripe, the water exceeded eight feet …,” noted Jim O’Byrne, an editor for the Times-Picayune.
The flood covered an area equal to the size of Manhattan seven times over. A map of it superimposed on Washington, D.C. showed it covered the entire capital. Mile after mile of residential housing sat empty, desolate — windows agape, curtains tattered, yards covered in mud. Trees lay on roofs, cars on trees, roofs on cars and trees. Some houses sat in streets. The chaos was quite inconceivable.
Mountain of debris
A June 2006 congressional report said Katrina might produce as much as 100 million cubic yards of debris, more than twice that of hurricane Andrew in 1992. Piles of drowned furniture, sodden sheetrock, moldy insulation, corroding appliances, twisted tree limbs – as well as rotting garbage – spilled across sidewalks into streets. Millions of cubic yards had to be hauled away. Homes were being “gutted” or stood forlorn and untouched.
Worse, this count did not include 36 million pounds of rotten meat and other food removed by the Army Corps of Engineers from commercial cold storage facilities in New Orleans. Nor did it take into account the thousands of cars, trucks and boats destroyed and abandoned. There were drowned cars, smelly refrigerators, damaged streets, dangling traffic signals, downed power poles and wires — everywhere.
St. Gabriel, a little-known hamlet on the Mississippi 15 miles south of Baton Rouge, held the most ghoulish evidence of the disasters. At a temporary morgue there, forensic pathologists with state medical examiner Louis Cataldie labored to identify hundreds of bodies.
As officials grappled with the unprecedented scale of disaster, they tried to predict how long it would take to recover. The estimates varied wildly – 3 years, 5 years, 10, 20, perhaps never. No one really knew. Nor could anyone be certain what the recovery would look like. The area might never “come back” as it was before the disaster. This uncertainty, added to the devastation itself, would have a profound impact on Hibernia.
 “Keynote address to the American Copy Editor’s Society conference, April 21, 2006, Cleveland, OH.
 Bring New Orleans Back Commission Urban Planning Committee, “Action Plan for New Orleans: The New American City,” Jan. 1, 2006.
 Congressional Research Service Report for Congress, “Disaster Debris Removal After Hurricane Katrina: Status and Associated Issues,” June 16, 2006, Linda Luther, environmental policy analyst, Resources, Science and Industry Division, Congressional Research Service, The Library of Congress.