10 Essential Stories About Hurricane Katrina

7 minute read

It was Aug. 29, 2005, that Hurricane Katrina made landfall in Louisiana, leading to one of the most catastrophic natural disasters in U.S. history. On Thursday, President Obama will travel to New Orleans to mark the decade that has passed since then.

Ahead of that anniversary, take a look back through the lens of TIME:

An American Tragedy. TIME’s now-editor Nancy Gibbs wrote this cover story the first week after the storm made landfall, as the devastation was still mounting. Though the flood waters had yet to ebb, it was already clear that the storm was a singular event whose echoes would be felt for years to come.

But by the time President Bush touched down in the tormented region on Friday, more than just the topography had changed. Shattered too was a hope that four years after the greatest man-made disaster in our history, we had got smarter about catastrophe, more nimble and visionary in our ability to respond. Is it really possible, after so many commissions and commitments, bureaucracies scrambled and rewired, emergency supplies stockpiled and prepositioned, that when a disaster strikes, the whole newfangled system just seizes up and can’t move?

Read the full story, free of charge: The Aftermath (Sept. 12, 2005)

An accounting. The questions continued to pile up the following week. How, they each asked in their own ways, had this happened? TIME identified four junctures where human failure had compounded the problem. From the mayor’s office to the federal government, there was plenty of blame to go around.

Already it’s clear that this debacle was more than an act of God. This country’s emergency operations, awesome in their potential, are also frighteningly interdependent. The locals are in charge–until they get overwhelmed. Then they cede control to the feds–but not entirely. The scarier things get, the fuzzier the lines of authority become. As TIME’s investigation shows, at every level of government, there was uncertainty about who was in charge at crucial moments.

Subscribers can read the full story in the TIME Vault: 4 Places Where the System Broke Down (Sept. 19, 2005)

Another place. About a month after Katrina hit, Cathy Booth Thomas reminded readers that the destruction had not been limited to New Orleans proper. In one Louisiana parish, beginning the process of rebuilding seemed near impossible.

Unlike in New Orleans, which is turning on the lights and water spigots, the 67,000 people who live on the peninsula to the east–mostly white and middle-class homeowners–have nothing at all to go back to. Katrina’s tidal surge, with waves of up to 25 ft., was so strong, it moved houses–their concrete foundations still attached–down streets.

Subscribers can read the full story in the TIME Vault: Starting from Scratch (Oct. 17, 2005)

A homecoming, or not. About a week after evacuees began to return, Thomas reported that the situation in New Orleans was “worse than you think.”

On Bourbon Street in the French Quarter, the neon lights are flashing, the booze is flowing, and the demon demolition men of Hurricane Katrina are ogling a showgirl performing in a thong. The Bourbon House is shucking local oysters again, Daiquiri’s is churning out its signature alcoholic slushies, and Mardi Gras masks are once again on sale. But drive north toward the hurricane-ravaged housing subdivisions off Lake Pontchartrain and the masks you see aren’t made for Carnival. They are industrial-strength respirators, stark and white, the only things capable of stopping a stench that turns the stomach and dredges up bad memories of a night nearly three months ago.

Subscribers can read the full story on TIME.com: It’s Worse Than You Think (Nov. 28, 2005)

A lesson learned. Mother Nature doesn’t care if you’re still recovering: another year means another hurricane season. On the eve of the 2006 hurricane season, New Orleanians reflected on the take-away from Katrina, and it wasn’t exactly a movie-of-the-week moral.

Trust no one and nothing. They’re not counting on the levees to hold or the government to rescue them this time. Neighborhoods like Broadmoor are recruiting block captains to canvass residents who have returned, noting which homes are occupied, who lives in flimsy trailers and which elderly residents might need help. In Gentilly, where many senior citizens died, residents are looking into their own text-messaging system for emergency alerts. Self-sufficiency is everyone’s mantra, from civic associations to city hall.

Subscribers can read the full story in the TIME Vault: You’re On Your Own (May 29, 2006)

An opportunity. Around the time of the hurricane’s two-year anniversary, Walter Isaacson found a bright spot left behind in Katrina’s wake: the many people working to improve education in New Orleans.

Call it the silver lining: Hurricane Katrina washed away what was one of the nation’s worst school systems and opened the path for energetic reformers who want to make New Orleans a laboratory of new ideas for urban schools .

Subscribers can read the full story on TIME.com: The Greatest Education Lab (Sept. 17, 2007)

A near miss. In the aftermath of Hurricane Gustav in 2008, Michael Grunwald examined whether the relatively limited impact of that storm was a result of better preparation—or just a lucky break.

The sad truth is that the Big Easy–while slightly less vulnerable than it was before Katrina–is still extremely vulnerable. And eventually the region will face the Big One, a storm far larger than Gustav or Katrina. “We got lucky this time,” says law professor Mark Davis, director of Tulane’s Institute on Water Resources Law and Policy. “I like being lucky. But at some point we have to get smart.”

Subscribers can read the full story in the TIME Vault: The Flood Next Time (Sept. 15, 2008)

A retrospective. As 2010 approached, Andy Serwer dubbed the aughts “the decade from hell.” The hurricane was no small part of what made the 2000s so terrible.

Sometimes it was as if the gods themselves were conspiring against this decade. On Aug. 29, 2005, near the center point in the decade, Hurricane Katrina made landfall in southeast Louisiana, killing more than 1,500 and causing $100 billion in damages. It was the largest natural disaster in our nation’s history.

Subscribers can read the full story in the TIME Vault: The Decade From Hell (Dec. 7, 2009)

A retelling. Post-Katrina interest in New Orleans continued in 2010 with the premiere of the HBO show Treme. In his review, TV critic James Poniewozik examined how the hurricane had changed the way the city’s story was told.

[The show’s creators] set their series in December 2005, after the media and political attention had died down and, as [David] Simon puts it, “the people of New Orleans realized they were on their own.” But although it was only four years ago, that also makes Treme a period piece. The producers took pains to match the calendar of events and the look of the postflood city, still on edge and patrolled by the military. One asset, says [Eric] Overmyer: “Unfortunately, there are still places that still look like they did the day after the storm.”

Subscribers can read the full story in the TIME Vault: Song of Survival (Apr. 19, 2010)

An anniversary. For the fifth anniversary of Katrina, TIME took a look at photos from before and after, how the clean-up had gone, maps of how the city of New Orleans had changed—and more.

We didn’t realize how much we’d mourn New Orleans until Katrina’s rising, fetid waters turned it into a ghost town. There are just a few places in this hemisphere that embody the New World’s elegantly unruly culture. Rio de Janeiro is one, New Orleans another. Its jazz, the jambalaya swirl of its cuisine and architecture–the Crescent City is our boisterous soul roaring from a wrought-iron balcony. But it took a tragedy as ugly as Katrina to really make us aware of the Big Easy’s beauty.

See the full package, free of charge: New Orleans 2005–2010 (Sept. 6, 2010)

Read next: New Orleans, Here & Now

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