5 Years Later, Lessons of Katrina

What we've learned from the disaster

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Five years ago this past Saturday, Hurricane Katrina first hit U.S. shores and began what would be a months-long, and for some people years-long, humanitarian crisis that is among the largest in modern U.S. history. President Obama gave a speech in New Orleans, one of the places hardest hit by the hurricane and the ensuing destruction of the levees, to commemorate the day. Here is what writers and observers say we've learned--and haven't--in the first years since disaster struck.

  • We're Not Ready for Another  The Washington Post's Stephen Flynn warns, "Five years later, one might think that Washington has realized the importance of preparing adequately for the next major hurricane on the Gulf Coast. Not so. Yes, the levees have been strengthened, the evacuation plans have been improved, and many of the logistical kinks surrounding emergency food, water and shelter have been worked out. But this isn't enough. Much of the heaviest lifting ultimately involves helping people go home again and pick up the pieces; to be effective, planning for reentry and recovery must begin before a storm ever strikes. Barring urgent action, if the gulf region is hit by another big hurricane this fall, its communities will be knocked down -- and this time, many will not be able to get back up."
  • The Role of Government  Journalist Mark Coatney takes a step back. "Hundreds of years ago, when I first started working at Time, I was taught that anniversary stories are some of the lowest forms of journalism around, and that Time would never stoop to them," he writes. "But for Katrina, I think it’s important to suspend this rule, because it really was a critical moment. If there is any real, fundamental danger to America (as opposed to all of Fox’s made-up stuff, that is), this is it: That the country will fail because its government does not provide even minimally competent services to its citizens."
  • 'Risk Management' an Ongoing Struggle  The Washington Post's Andrew Freedman writes, "Katrina was a wake up call that even in the 21st century there still exists a massive disconnect between how skilled we are at anticipating a threat, and how well-prepared we are for its occurrence. In a risk management context, Katrina was a glaring example of a known risk that was horribly mismanaged. ... For example, earthquakes don't kill people. Buildings that topple in an earthquake do. A hurricane's storm surge doesn't kill people (at least not when the coastline has been evacuated). Levees that break, and allow the surge to inundate a populated area, do."
  • Katrina Still Defines Gulf Politics  ABC News' Devin Dwyer writes, "Hurricane Katrina remains significant not only for the devastation it wrought across the Gulf coast but as a test of leadership and mettle for an entire class of elected and appointed figures at all levels of government. It was a defining moment for mayors, governors, state and national lawmakers, and a president and his administration pushed to limits few anticipated or planned for. And five years later, it's clear the experience became a shining moment in the careers of some, while straining or breaking others.  ...Perhaps the most meaningful assessment of their actions lies in the public's confidence, or lack thereof."
  • New Orleans Hasn't Fixed Landfills  The Washington Independent's Andrew Restuccia explains, "Since Hurricane Katrina, activists have raised broader questions about the safety of local landfills given New Orleans’ propensity to flood. Activists have also raised questions about the impact of local trash-disposal sites on low-income communities and communities of color. Five years after Katrina, in the midst of the Gulf oil spill disaster, those questions and struggles remain."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.