What Went Wrong: The Story of Katrina—and a Disastrously Slow Rescue

A family waits to be rescued in flooded New Orleans in August 2005. Rick Wilking/REUTERS

Editor's note: This story ran in Newsweek on September 11, 2005, in the direct aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

It wasn't exactly a surprise. "This ain't gonna last," New Orleans City Council President Oliver Thomas told his security guard as they watched the waters of Lake Pontchartrain rising and racing and eating away at the dirt levee beneath the concrete floodwall built to protect New Orleans from disaster. It was 4 o'clock on Sunday afternoon, Aug. 28. Hurricane Katrina was still 14 hours away, but the sea surge had begun. Thomas returned to the city's hurricane war room and announced, to anyone who was listening, "The water's coming into the city."

Thomas was asleep on his office couch early Tuesday morning when he was awakened by the sound of banging on his door and someone yelling, "The levee broke!" Thomas stood up on his soaked carpet and felt as though he were standing in concrete. He was paralyzed, he later said, by the fear of predictions coming true. Thomas, who had been rescued off the roof of his house in New Orleans during Hurricane Betsy in 1965, had been a city councilman for a dozen years. His specialty is water. He knew all about the studies and reports and dire warnings stacked up on the desks of bureaucrats, he knew about all the relief and reconstruction and restoration projects that had been discussed but never paid for or carried out, and he knew his beloved old city was doomed.

A few rescuers were ready, but precious few. On Monday morning, as the storm slammed into the Gulf Coast, Col. Tim Tarchick of the 920th Rescue Wing, Air Force Reserve Command, got on the phone to call every agency he could think of to ask permission to take his three rescue helicopters into the disaster zone as soon as the storm abated. The response was noncommittal. FEMA, the federal agency that is supposed to handle disasters, told Tarchick that it wasn't authorized to task military units. That had to come from the Defense Department. Tarchick wasn't able to cut through the red tape until 4 p.m. Tuesday--more than 24 hours after the storm had passed. His crews plucked hundreds of people off rooftops, but when they delivered them to an assigned landing zone, there was "total chaos. No food, no water, no bathrooms, no nothing." There was "no structure, no organization, no command center," Tarchick told NEWSWEEK.

Only despair. The news could not have been more dispiriting: The reports of gunfire at medical-relief helicopters. The stories of pirates capturing rescue boats. The reports of police standing and watching looters--or joining them. The TV images of hundreds and thousands of people, mostly black and poor, trapped in the shadow of the Superdome. And most horrific: the photographs of dead people floating facedown in the sewage or sitting in wheelchairs where they died, some from lack of water. For many across the city and the Gulf Coast, prayer seemed one of their few options. On CNN, Mayor C. Ray Nagin asked the country to "pray for us," a plea repeated by survivors who needed that, and much more.

New Orleans has long been an inspiration to soulful writers and artists who sing the blues. But there was nothing romantic about Katrina's wake. Most of the poets had headed for higher ground (although legendary R&B man "Fats" Domino stayed, was reported missing, then found alive). Left behind were the poor who couldn't get out, a few defiant members of the local gentry and gangs of predators.

No one seemed to have any idea how many people died, but it was clearly the worst natural disaster since a hurricane wiped out Galveston, Texas, in 1900, killing 6,000 to 12,000 people. No major American city had been evacuated since Richmond and Atlanta in the Civil War. The economic cost will be enormous, starting with gasoline prices jumping to more than $3 a gallon. The political cost to President Bush could also be stiff. When Air Force One dipped below the clouds on Wednesday so the president could peer out the window down at the disaster, the image was uncomfortably imperial. A folksier Bush toured the wretched region on Friday, hugged some victims and did a rare but necessary thing: he admitted that the results of the relief effort had been "not acceptable."

Day after day of images showed exhausted families and their crying children stepping around corpses while they begged: Where is the water? Where are the buses? They seemed helpless, powerless, at the mercy of forces far beyond their control. The lack of rapid response left people in the United States, and all over the world, wondering how an American city could look like Mogadishu or Port-au-Prince. The refugee crisis--a million people without homes, jobs, schools--hardly fit George W. Bush's vision of the American Colossus.

What went wrong? Just about everything. How the system failed is a tangled story, but the basic narrative is becoming clearer: hesitancy, bureaucratic rivalries, failures of leadership from city hall to the White House and epically bad luck combined to create a morass. In the early aftermath, fingers pointed in all directions. The president was to blame; no, the looters. No, the bureaucrats. No, the local politicians. It was FEMA's fault--unless it was the Department of Homeland Security's. Or the Pentagon's. Certainly the government failed, and the catastrophe exposed, for all the world to see, raw racial divisions.

Bush's many critics will say that the president was disengaged, on vacation, distracted by Iraq and insensitive to the needs of poor black people. The White House blames the magnitude of the storm itself, patchy information on the ground and a confused chain of command, according to a senior Bush aide who requests anonymity in order to speak freely about internal administration discussions. The truth probably lies somewhere in between. Bush is fighting a war, and he is sometimes slow to react, and he may have been lulled by early reports that New Orleans had been spared the worst of the storm. These are all legitimate excuses. Still, we expect more from a president.

Mother Nature was a major villain. A hurricane like Katrina packs the energy of a 10-megaton nuclear bomb--exploding every 20 minutes. Global warming does not explain the recent increase in hurricanes, the scientists say. A natural cycle of rising and lowering ocean temperatures accounts for the frequency of tropical storms; a lull in hurricanes from about the mid-'60s to the '90s was the exception, not the norm. But man may be making storms worse. As the planet heats, hurricanes will become more intense. And during that period of relative calm, homeowners and industry crowded the fragile shore all along the path of hurricanes in the South and Eastern United States.

Man robbed the Mississippi Delta of its natural protection from storms--ironically, to prevent flooding. Dikes and levees that channeled silt, and would have normally been allowed to build up the bayous and outer islands surrounding New Orleans, have instead been left to sink slowly into the mud. The wetlands along the Gulf Coast have been disappearing at the rate of about 33 football fields a day.

The government knew this and planned for the "Big One," at least in theory. The latest exercise by state, local and federal officials, looking at the impact of a fictional "Hurricane Pam" last year, pretty well predicted the crushing impact of Katrina on New Orleans--and the Gulf Coast. But the Department of Homeland Security, which is supposed to coordinate the relief effort for all disasters, natural and man-made, has been more focused on the terror threat since the sprawling agency was created post 9/11. Planners spend more time preparing for exotic (but less predictable) biochem or dirty-bomb attacks, which are more likely to get funding from Congress or the administration. (Though given the events after Katrina, one has to wonder about the nation's readiness to respond to such terrorist strikes.)

Wedged between the Mississippi River on the south and Lake Pontchartrain on the north, New Orleans is mostly below sea level, a saucer waiting to be filled. The "Big Easy" is a city of indolent charm, and its residents can be fatalist about enjoying the moment. The city, known for its "Cities of the Dead" because bodies must be buried aboveground, is somewhat otherworldly. It has long been better known for corruption than efficiency.

Over the years, hundreds of miles of earthen levees, concrete floodwalls and pumping stations have been built to keep out the water. Louisiana politicians have lobbied for more money to shore up and heighten the walls and to restore the entire Delta coastline. In June, Sen. Mary Landrieu brought 25 schoolkids into the French Quarter, put them in life jackets and had them stand on the beautiful old wrought-iron balconies. A blue tarp was draped below them to show how high the water would reach. That's almost how high the water--not blue, but brown with sewage, gas and chemicals--did rise last week.

For years, the Army Corps of Engineers has asked for more money for New Orleans and not received it. The Bush administration, strapped by the war in Iraq and eager to hold down spending and cut taxes, actually reduced funding for bolstering the city's levees. Patchworked and aging, the levee system was originally built to withstand a Category 3 hurricane. With winds reaching 140 miles an hour, Katrina was a Category 4 storm when it hit New Orleans at dawn on Monday.

Incredibly, the hurricane could have been worse. It had grown to Category 5, with winds of 165 miles an hour, as it bore down on the Gulf Coast over the weekend. A hurricane is like a huge straw sucking up water, which creates a storm surge. The surge that hit the Gulf Coast, some 29 feet, was the highest ever recorded. The storm steered just to the east of New Orleans and blew away much of Biloxi, Miss. One Biloxi survivor, a Navy vet named Kevin Miller, described clinging to a tree as people floated by, "some dead." Miller told NEWSWEEK of grabbing a desperate woman by the hair--and losing her. "I just lost my grip," he said, choking up. The suffering all along the Gulf Coast, where homes and whole islands vanished, has been terrible, with people's whole lives falling into ruin.

A poll taken for the "Hurricane Pam" planning exercise in 2004 predicted that, if ordered to evacuate New Orleans, about 30 percent of the city of a half-million people would stay behind. So it should have come as no surprise that some 80,000 to 100,000 people chose not to heed the order of Mayor Nagin to get out of town on the Saturday before the storm. A few stayed behind by choice. Brooke Duncan, who was "Rex, King of Carnival," at the 1971 Mardi Gras, wanted to remain in the city his family had first come to before the Civil War. But when the water began to lap at his house in the French Quarter, Duncan, 81, set out carrying his pet dog, a corgi, and a gun to a friend's house. He joined a convoy of well-off Garden District residents driving out of the city. "We had weapons and displayed them through the window," said Duncan, who is now in Cincinnati.

About a fifth of New Orleans residents live below the poverty line, and one in five does not have a car. This disadvantaged population is overwhelmingly African-American. The South has a sordid history when it comes to poor blacks and hurricanes. In 1927, when the Mississippi flooded, blacks were herded as virtual prisoners upriver in Greenville, Miss. As a steamboat, half-filled with whites, took off to safety, the band played "Bye-Bye, Blackbird." Racial tensions may have been even worse this time round. "I think the black population feels abandoned, and they were abandoned" in Katrina, says John M. Barry, author of "Rising Tide," a history of the Great Flood of 1927.

Those who were unable to leave New Orleans were told to go to the Superdome for safe haven from the storm. It quickly became the first circle of hell. First the air conditioning failed. Then the lights. A generator kicked in, but with only enough power to keep the huge arena dimly lit. (When the sun came out, it sent Biblical shafts through a couple of holes Katrina had blown in the roof.) The Salvation Army doled out thousands of ready-made meals (a choice of jambalaya, spaghetti or Thai chicken), but bottled water was scarce, and in the steamy heat, the stench of unwashed bodies ripened. On Wednesday, all running water shut off, and the reeking toilets overflowed.

In the dark bathrooms, the walls and floor were smeared with feces. A black market grew up. Hot sellers were cigarettes (at $10 a pack) and antidiuretics, to enable people to go longer without peeing. The occasional gunshot rang out. A man fell or jumped from the upper deck onto the concrete below and died. In a dank bathroom, someone attacked a National Guardsman with a lead pipe and tried to steal his automatic weapon. In the scuffle, the Guardsman was shot in the leg. Crack vials were scattered around the floor. At least two rapes were reported, one of a child.

At the adjoining and equally squalid New Orleans Arena, people began putting plastic bags on their feet to walk through the pools of urine. And yet, in a scene from Hieronymus Bosch, a man named Samuel Thompson, 34, took out his violin and played Bach's famous lamentation, Sonata No. 1 in G minor. He told L.A. Times reporter Scott Gold, who witnessed the scene, "These people have nothing. I have a violin. And I should play for them. They should have something."

Life went on, barely. On Monday night, in a dark attic surrounded by floodwater, Waldrica Nathan, 19, gave birth to a baby boy. The child was delivered by his father and grandparents, who had picked up a few tips by watching cable TV. The grandfather "knew just where to cut the cord and how to tie a shoestring around it," a hospital spokesman later told the New Orleans Times-Picayune. To keep the baby cool, family members fashioned a combination crib/boat out of a laundry basket and floated it in the cool waters of the flooded living room.

Throughout Tuesday and Wednesday, the water kept rising in New Orleans. The floodwalls breached in at least three places. Trying to plug one 300-foot gap on the 17th Street Canal, the Corps of Engineers dropped giant sandbags and concrete blocks from helicopters. But the choppers were called away to rescue people crying for help from rooftops, and the engineers were never able to get ahead of the flooding. As the water rose, New Orleans's Canal Street became a canal again. In a looted travel agency, some homeless men sat around eating potato chips and drinking Miller Lite beer.

Stranded residents became resourceful. People tore off chair legs and used them as torches after dark. Some people screamed as they waded by giant rats in the garbage-strewn water, but others improvised, making boats out of empty refrigerators. Rumors flew. There were alligators swimming in the ghetto. And sharks from the flooded aquarium downtown. Not true--but there were poisonous cottonmouth snakes and water moccasins.

The giant Wal-Mart store in the Lower Garden District stayed above the floodwaters and did a booming business--in freeloaders. Some people emerged with shopping carts full of food and water and medical supplies. Others appeared with TVs and DVDs. "Is everything free?" asked one woman arriving at the door. Told yes, she began chanting, "TV! TV! TV!" The looters took chain saws and fishing poles. One gang chased away the security guards and emptied the Wal-Mart of guns and ammunition, enough to arm a company of soldiers. The police themselves may have helped trigger the lawlessness, as reports that some of their own had engaged in looting swept through the city.

On Wednesday night, Mayor Nagin ordered 1,500 policemen--virtually the entire city force--to stop trying to rescue people from attics and rooftops, and to turn instead to stopping the looting. "They are starting to get to the heavily populated areas--hotels, hospitals--and we're going to stop it right now," he said.

By Thursday, New Orleans was on the verge of anarchy. Policemen, many of whom had lost their homes, were turning in their badges rather than face the looters for another day. Jail inmates were moved out of town, but their criminal records are underwater. Sorting out who has been charged and with which crime could be a nightmare. Shoplifters might be incarcerated with rapists, and the system might be compelled to let some suspects go free.

Mayor Nagin issued what he called a "desperate S.O.S." to the federal government. In a radio interview, he exploded at the Feds for holding "goddamn press conferences" instead of doing much to help his city. Nagin himself had problems of his own. He had opened up the Superdome to thousands of people--but nobody seemed to have had a plan to care for them or to get them out of there. There were promises of buses that never came. Some 500 National Guardsmen showed up to keep order, but the nervous young soldiers waved their weapons about. People began to complain that they were being held in a prison. Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco seemed uncertain and sluggish, hesitant to declare martial law or a state of emergency, which would have opened the door to more Pentagon help.

Washington, too, was slow to react to the crisis. The Pentagon, under Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, was reluctant for the military to take a lead role in disaster relief, a job traditionally performed by FEMA and by the National Guard, which is commanded by state governors. President Bush could have "federalized" the National Guard in an instant. That's what his father, President George H.W. Bush, did after the Los Angeles riots in 1992. Back then, the Justice Department sent Robert Mueller, a jut-jawed ex-Marine (who is now FBI director), to take charge, showing, in effect, that the cavalry had arrived. FEMA's current head, Michael Brown, has appeared over his head and even a little clueless in news interviews. He is far from the sort of take-charge presence New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani conveyed after 9/11.

Up to now, the Bush administration has not hesitated to sweep aside the opinions of lawyers on such matters as prisoners' rights. But after Katrina, a strange paralysis set in. For days, Bush's top advisers argued over legal niceties about who was in charge, according to three White House officials who declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the negotiations. Beginning early in the week, Justice Department lawyers presented arguments for federalizing the Guard, but Defense Department lawyers fretted about untrained 19-year-olds trying to enforce local laws, according to a senior law-enforcement official who requested anonymity citing the delicate nature of the discussions.

While Washington debated, the situation in New Orleans and along the Gulf Coast deteriorated. Bush traveled to the region in part to work out a deal with local officials to establish a clearer chain of command. By the weekend, federal officials said there could be tens of thousands of troops in New Orleans in short order. Saturday, Bush pledged to return to the region on Monday--and to deploy 7,000 additional active-duty troops under the Pentagon's control. But for many, the help was arriving too late. Officials worked through the weekend trying to hammer out the jurisdictional issues.

The losses in the meantime have been heartbreaking. At Tulane University, Dr. James Robinson, a prominent AIDS researcher, and his wife, Monique, decided to stay behind to protect some cell lines--white blood cells infected with the disease--that represent decades of research on his part. He packed his lab with food and water and relied on generators to keep his freezers and incubators operating. He and his wife even managed to have a glass of wine and watch a DVD on a computer after the storm abated. But by Wednesday, with the water rising, his generator failed. Fearful of getting robbed or drowned, the Robinsons made their way to a Tulane parking lot, secured by guards, where he called his daughter in Providence, R.I., to tell her they were all right--for now. "I didn't dare ask him about his work," said his daughter, Lisette Dorsey. "I fear it's all probably a loss."

At least the Robinsons seemed safe. Sherri Johnson, a 52-year-old woman who walks with a cane, fled her house and all her belongings to spend Tuesday night on the St. Claude Bridge, where she cowered amid isolated shooting. In the morning, she was ordered off the bridge and began a three-mile hike to the convention center. She arrived at a scene of mayhem. Someone had opened fire on a crowd, which panicked, knocking Johnson to the ground. There was no security, no water, no medical help, aside from a pair of overwhelmed nurses--no sign of any organized relief--at the convention center. Just people crying "Help us!" to passing cameramen. "Where is the Red Cross?" Johnson plaintively asked a NEWSWEEK reporter.

The skies in New Orleans gradually filled with search-and-rescue helicopters, but there was no central command to coordinate them. A NEWSWEEK reporter on a helo flown by the Arizona Air Reserve heard this conversation as the crew readied to leave New Orleans Louis Armstrong Airport after dropping off two evacuees. First crewman: "F---, is he hearing us?" (referring to the air-traffic controller). Lieutenant: "I don't know, we should just take off." Engineer: "We just got back from Afghanistan. Organization's a lot better there."

Overwhelmed local officials struggled to bring order to chaos. The cloverleaf where Interstate 10 meets the causeway in Jefferson Parish became a kind of crude sorting place. As helicopters landed, disgorging hundreds of dazed and often filthy refugees, Dr. Joel Eldridge, the medical director for Louisiana, set up a makeshift hospital and medical triage. On Thursday, he wearily lamented that he had medicines--but not water or toilets. "It is difficult to see a child ask you for water and you don't have anything to give him," said Eldridge.

Sad little groups dragged their meager possessions on pieces of Styrofoam. Col. Stanley Griffin, in charge of the muddy, jammed cloverleaf site for the state police, tried to quell a small riot as the first buses finally arrived Thursday. He waded into the fracas as people screamed and pushed. A baby was handed into the bus, but the doors closed, leaving a frantic woman behind. Griffin could only hammer on the windscreen of the bus, urging the driver to move out.

When the first buses arrived in Houston, to unload their unhappy cargo at the next domed stadium--the Astrodome--desperation mixed with relief. "I have no idea where my 2-year-old son is," said Nicole Williams, 41. She wore a T shirt marked PLEASE HELP ME FIND MY FAMILY. On the back were listed the names of four family members. They were separated at the I-10 cloverleaf. When Williams tried to reach for her baby so he could ride in her lap, she says, a state trooper sprayed Mace in her face to keep her from getting off the bus. "They maced my mother and my daughter," she said. "Then the door slammed shut."

The feeling of despair was not confined to the refugees. On Friday afternoon, Chief Bill Hunter, the No. 2 man at the New Orleans Criminal Sheriff's Department, stopped City Council President Oliver Thomas. "I hate to say this, Oliver, I really do, but it's over." Thomas resisted the blues. "No, we'll rebuild," he said. "At least 20 years," said Hunter, shaking his head.

For many refugees of New Orleans, the weekend brought just the first stage in a long, arduous journey to a better place. But at least there were some hopeful signs. On Craigslist.com, the popular Internet site, offers of housing and help poured in from all over the country (though how many of the refugees could go online was another question). Even the French offered to help. In time, the city will rebuild. Thomas scoffed at a remark by House Speaker Dennis Hastert of Illinois that New Orleans could not be saved. "I'm ready to show the Dennis Hasterts of the world that we will rebuild, that we have the best jazz, the best gumbo, the best Margaritas, the best French Quarter. And they'll be better than before." Cities do die. But they can come back from the dead--even Hiroshima and Nagasaki did. Chicago was rebuilt after its fire in 1871, and San Francisco came back after its earthquake in 1906.

Fires and earthquakes are spectacular. Water is more insidious. It seeps and lurks, undermines and rots. The water in New Orleans is a toxic stew of chemicals, petroleum and waterborne diseases. It will take months just to pump it out. If New Orleans can muster the human spirit, the sense of soulfulness and joy that has sustained it through the centuries, through a British invasion, Yankee occupation, floods and earlier hurricanes, it is not too much to imagine that the good times will one day roll again. But the 21st-century Battle of New Orleans has just begun.

In "The Lost City" (Sept. 12), we reported that Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco had been "hesitant to declare martial law or a state of emergency." In fact, Blanco declared a state of emergency on Friday, Aug. 26, before Hurricane Katrina hit the state. NEWSWEEK regrets the error.

Editor's pick

Newsweek cover
  • Newsweek magazine delivered to your door
  • Unlimited access to Newsweek.com
  • Ad free Newsweek.com experience
  • iOS and Android app access
  • All newsletters + podcasts
Newsweek cover
  • Unlimited access to Newsweek.com
  • Ad free Newsweek.com experience
  • iOS and Android app access
  • All newsletters + podcasts