Betsy to Katrina: New Orleans’ Battle Against Hurricanes and Flooding


From 1851 to 2004, Louisiana was hit by 49 of the 273 hurricanes that made contact with the Atlantic Coast, and one of the state’s key cities, New Orleans, has been in critical jeopardy of being hit for centuries (Hurricane Preparedness). Even worse, half of the city sits below sea level, with an average elevation of six feet under, and is continuing to sink, putting it in grave danger of flooding every year (Schleifstein). So with such a big threat to the area’s safety, how has the Big Easy prepared to handle storms and protect itself from the infinite supply of water lying above it?

My Interest

Ever since my fifth-grade math class had a unit on architecture and design, I have been extremely interested in the subject, often creating floor plans for my dream room or house in my spare time during middle school. As I got older, I began to learn more about my aunt’s job as a city planner in Paris and thought that it sounded like a career I might like to pursue in the future. I applied this interest to a project last year, in which I studied how Olympic host cities plan to put on a successful Games, specifically focusing on Paris’s plan for their shot in 2024. My curiosity for this subject has carried on into this project, in which I was able to learn more about the natural disaster aspect of city planning.

Hurricane Betsy: How One Storm Changed New Orleans’ Approach to Hurricane Preparedness

On September 9, 1965, Hurricane Betsy hit New Orleans, Louisiana at around 10 p.m. (“Hurricane Betsy”), bringing tides up to 14 feet above sea level (Devastating Disasters). The Category 3 storm pushed large amounts of water up the Mississippi River and into Lake Pontchartrain, sending enough pressure to destroy the city’s poorly-constructed back levees, which left it completely unprotected (Reckdahl). A massive rush of water came into the town, flooding “the Lower 9th Ward, parts of Gentilly, the 7th Ward,” and many other low-elevation areas of the city (Reckdahl).

Damage to Gentilly after Hurricane Betsy (“1965: Hurricane …”)

Unfortunately, when the water got to buildings and residential areas of New Orleans, many structures were not at all prepared for disaster. Before World War I, most homes in the area were built with flooding in mind, with many builders using “rot-resistant cypress” and constructing homes “two to four feet off the ground on piers” (Allen). But in the late 1940s, ranch-style homes on low-cost concrete slabs became increasingly popular, especially for soldiers returning from World War II (Edwards). These homes continued to grow in popularity across the country, including New Orleans, and when Betsy hit the city, many residents were left completely vulnerable, as their houses were close to the ground and built without flood-resistant materials (The History of Building Elevation …).

The remains of homes built on inexpensive concrete slabs (“1965: Hurricane …”)

While a loss of power forced an emergency transfer of communications, around 250,000 people were successfully evacuated to makeshift shelters, such as unused schools or naval bases for many weeks during recovery (“Hurricane Betsy”). While often lacking resources to live comfortably (Reckdahl), this experience was far better than the horrors of Superdome 40 years later (Gold).

New Orleans residents taking shelter in Nicholls High School gym, one of many evacuation centers during Hurricane Betsy (“1965: Hurricane …”)

Overall, Betsy caused more than $1.42 billion in damage, and $1.2 billion in Louisiana alone (Sugg), making it the first ever hurricane to cause over $1 billion in damage and the most destructive storm to hit the state at the time (“Hurricane Betsy”). This led to the hurricane’s nickname “Billion-Dollar Betsy” (Sugg), with $1 billion in 1965 translating to around $8 billion in 2019 money, a mere fraction of the damage inflicted by Katrina.

One of the few upsides to Hurricane Betsy was that after the incredible amounts of destruction to New Orleans were seen by both local and federal government, many officials were encouraged to make changes for the area’s hurricane protection systems (Roberts). Just one month after the storm, the Lake Pontchartrain and Vicinity project, originally pitched in the 1950s, was authorized by Congress, resulting in the construction of 120 miles of levees in the New Orleans area (Roberts). The Army Corps of Engineers’ Hurricane Protection Program was also a result of Betsy, allowing the Corps to build taller, stronger levees for the city (Devastating Disasters).

But unfortunately, all of these protections were designed specifically for a future Hurricane Betsy, a smaller, fast-moving storm, with no thoughts whatsoever about larger, slower-moving hurricanes like Katrina, rendering many efforts at the time virtually useless to the devastating storm that came 40 years later (Devastating Disasters).

Hurricane Katrina: How Betsy 2.0 Destroyed New Orleans’s Complacency

“What started out as a natural disaster became a man-made disaster—a failure of government to look out for its own citizens.”

President Barack Obama (Gibbens)

40 years after Betsy, Hurricane Katrina made contact with New Orleans on August 29, 2005, just before dawn (Sills). Originally classified as a tropical depression near the Bahamas on August 24, Katrina intensified, eventually growing to a Category 5 hurricane by August 28. It was fortunately downgraded to a Category 3, the same magnitude as Hurricane Betsy, just before making contact with the city (Sills). The storm, while not particularly fast moving for the majority of its path, was enormous, with its diameter reaching entirely across the Gulf of Mexico on its way to hit New Orleans (Gibbens).

As Katrina approached the city, a massive rush of water was pushed up the Mississippi River and into Lake Pontchartrain, sending a storm surge of 28 feet through the lake and inducing 55-foot waves around the coast of Louisiana, both being the highest ever recorded to have hit North America (Sills). Almost identically to Hurricane Betsy, Katrina flooded many parts of the city with lower elevation.

Aftermath of Hurricane Katrina (Horne)

While Mayor Ray Nagin had given a mandatory order of evacuation the night before, “up to 100,000 residents did not have access to transportation” and could not safely leave New Orleans (Horne). Around 16,000 New Orleans residents had to take shelter at the Louisiana Superdome (now renamed the Mercedes-Benz Superdome), a football stadium in the area (Gold). The roof of the stadium did not withstand the first night of Katrina, leaving the people there defenseless (Horne). Food, water, and other resources ran out fast, bathrooms were unavailable, and it was difficult to find a good place to sleep. These thousands of people were forced to stay in the Superdome for days through terrible conditions while the government began to repair New Orleans (Gold).

A few of the thousands of people who seeked shelter in the Superdome during Katrina (Horne)

While some smaller storms had hit the city in the time between Betsy and Katrina, no large hurricane had made contact with New Orleans in the 40 years between the two, and many residents were unprepared, seeing Betsy as a one-time experience (Markwell).  The probability of a storm as big as Betsy was very low, and not even the city was truly prepared. Especially unfortunately, even though Hurricane Katrina was identified as the same magnitude as the 1965 storm (a Category 3), the storm surge through Lake Pontchartrain was far bigger than a storm of that level should have been, and proved too much for the levees to handle (Markwell).

Katrina ultimately caused over 1,800 fatalities and wiped out or severely damaged over 800,000 homes and housing units (Horne). The vast majority of these deaths were of elders, who were not properly supported in the evacuation process and either died before or during being evacuated or were not met with sufficient resources in shelters (Markwell). The storm caused around $125 billion in damage, translating to over $160 billion today, making it far more damaging than Betsy (“Hurricane Katrina Statistics …”).

The main reason for this destruction was the failure of the levees around the city, which had been constructed after Hurricane Betsy with an I-wall sticking up from their center to help protect against high waves. Unfortunately, officials and engineers had sparse knowledge of their behavior, and sufficient time was not taken to consider another option or look further into possible issues, so I-walls were installed into levees all around New Orleans with little thought about their safety — most walls were built to achieve the minimum required level of stability (Sills).

One of many levee breaches around New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina (Horne)

One year after Hurricane Katrina, a study was performed by the Interagency Performance Evaluation Taskforce, or IPET, to look into why the levees had failed. The organization saw that the fairly poorly constructed I-walls had begun to tilt from their original position as the water outside New Orleans rose, forming a gap that flooded the ground under the wall. This led to an increase of pressure almost directly on the levees that eventually caused their failure. While much of the flooding within the city was caused by water flowing over the levees, this was expected and caused minimal damage in comparison to the surprise breaching of the entire system due to the gap between the I-wall and levee. The IPET estimated that only one-third of the flooding damage in New Orleans was because of water overtopping the levees and that if proper consideration had gone into the building of I-walls, Katrina would have been far less destructive (Sills).

Diagram of I-wall gap (Sills)

Once all of the water had been removed from the city with pumps, the United States Army Corps of Engineers began to adjust and rebuild levees, increasing the depth of their foundations, as well as replacing all failed sections of the I-walls with T-walls, allowing for much more protection against flooding. Unfortunately, a lack of funds meant that I-walls that did not fall during Katrina were left in place. While the organization decided to close the canals around the city during hurricane season, this obvious lack of protection is quite worrisome, as I-walls have been proven to be disastrous when dealing with a large storm (Sills).

The benefits of building levees with T-walls rather than I-walls (“I-wall …”)

Hurricane Preparedness: What Can Be Done to Prevent Another Katrina

Last May, a $14.5 billion project to fully protect New Orleans against flooding was finished, strengthening and increasing the levees and floodwalls around the city, a big step forward for hurricane protection. But a recent study by the Army Corps of Engineers found that this upgrade will prove almost useless in the next few years, even as early as 2023. The earth’s quickly-rising sea levels are eroding barrier islands around the city, and the soft soil in which the levees were built is allowing them to sink as they settle in. At this point, I think that not much can be done for the levees; if one of the biggest public service projects in history was unable to fix the system, I cannot imagine that anything else really could (Frank). But while the flooding of New Orleans is inevitable, I think that many smaller changes can be made to prevent damage as much as possible.

Firstly, a lot needs to change in regards to housing safety — most homes in the city are not built with sufficient elevation or rot-resistant materials such as cypress, making them very vulnerable to water-induced damage (Allen). While rebuilding every house in New Orleans to be more prepared for flooding would be impractical, I think that encouraging or even mandating that all new homes or additions be built with cypress and raised with piers would be very effective. This would largely decrease the risk of damaging homes during a hurricane and would also increase residents’ safety due to living at a higher elevation than floodwater.

Another critical area of improvement is the shelter and evacuation processes during a storm, both on a large and small scale. As a city, New Orleans has a lot of room to develop in this area, as seen from the horrors of Superdome, a shelter during Katrina in which lack of basic resources made life unbearable (Gold), as well as the countless deaths of elders due to inadequate support through evacuation (Markwell). I think that the city should more clearly lay out their plans for hurricane evacuation and shelter, being sure to consider everyone’s needs in order to reduce casualties. Making sure to have sufficient food, water, and other supplies for all citizens is crucial to New Orleans residents’ safety, and having the tools to take care of elders has been proven extremely important.

But in the end, New Orleans’ problems with flooding are mainly due to climate change; with global warming making sea levels continue to rise and hurricanes ever more common, we can no longer ignore this issue. So I encourage you, the reader, to do something: strive to take shorter showers, donate to organizations trying to help, support politicians who want to make a difference in this area. Anything to help save the city, one bursting with vibrant life, one that has seen centuries of history — from the French Revolution to the birth of jazz. We cannot let this city die.

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  1. April 26, 2019 by Lauren.Gehman

    As a resident of New Orleans, I appreciate your attention on this essential subject matter!

  2. April 26, 2019 by rebecca urato

    Eliza, great job! Your interest in this issue is extremely evident in your project. I can see that you care about it a lot and put a lot of time into it. I think you have provided a really unique perspective on the devastation from hurricanes, and I hope you continue to research this further. Good work!

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