Thoughts on Hurricane Katrina, five years later
An anniversary is a time of reflection and a time of planning for the future. We marked the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina a few days ago. My first thoughts of reflection go back to the morning when the storm came in. I had planned to get to work early, knowing I would spend the day doing various economic assessments of what damage the hurricane had wrought. But I first had to deal with a disaster of my own. My 9-year-old daughter had left the faucet running into a plugged sink in our upstairs bathroom. Our entire downstairs was flooded. As we did what we could to begin the cleanup, I watched the radar image of Katrina come on land from my wet, but safe, home outside Atlanta. What I would see that day would put our little problem in perspective.
By the time I got into work Katrina was well ashore. It seemed pretty clear that the Mississippi coast had borne the brunt of the storm and New Orleans had been spared a direct hit. As we began to develop briefing materials for the Bank's senior officers, news reports began to roll in describing the devastation in Biloxi, Gulfport, and Pass Christian. We also saw pictures of the damage in New Orleans—hotel windows missing and the torn fabric atop the Superdome. I wrote in one of my first communications of the day that "In New Orleans, structural damage appears severe in places but not catastrophic."
It wasn't until later that day that we began to hear that there was flooding in the Big Easy. From Atlanta, we figured it was the effects of the storm surge through the wetlands bordering St. Bernard Parish, and maybe levees were overtopped. All hurricanes bring storm surge and some flooding, so we didn't think too much of it, to be honest. We were focused on getting damage assessments from the Gulf's energy infrastructure, which we would find out were severe.
Then I read a newswire report that several levees in New Orleans had given way. I had watched a TV special about how New Orleans was vulnerable to hurricane-induced levee breaches, but the storms they described hit New Orleans head on; Katrina had missed to the east. It still didn't register. Then we saw the first photos. The entire city was flooding. It was clear we were dealing with a disaster we were told could happen, but none of us believed it would ever really happen. But it was happening, and like all Americans we felt helpless.
That was five years ago, but we can all remember watching the tragedy unfold like it was yesterday. I remember worrying about my colleagues in our New Orleans office, about the friends I had in Mississippi, and how we could ever be expected to go about our work in trying to measure the impact on the economy in what was clearly an immeasurable human catastrophe.
The response of the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta to Hurricane Katrina is documented in our 2005 Annual Report and in several articles and presentations made in the days and months following the event. In the Research Department, we became unwilling experts in disaster economics, never forgetting the heartbreak and human toll of Katrina. The Brookings Institute performed similar exercises, and their latest work is an outstanding look back, and also a look ahead.
I'm fortunate that my work takes me to New Orleans several times a year. I've been able to witness the city's slow but steady recovery and have met some of this country's best and strongest citizens. I've viewed the restoration along the Mississippi coast with awe.
When the most dire predictions were being made regarding the impact of the oil spill, I thought back to Katrina and how these people bounced back with pride and dignity.
As the people who survived and rebuilt five years ago reflect on and plan for the future, I had one recurring thought—not one measured by any economic time series or accounted for in any econometric model. No matter what my friends along the Gulf Coast and New Orleans may face, I wouldn't bet against them. Ever.
By Michael Chriszt, an assistant vice president in the Atlanta Fed's research department
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