5 Hurricane Katrina Lessons: 10 Years Later

The death and destruction from Hurricane Katrina’s landfall on the Gulf Coast ten years ago today continues to affect us. Did you learn any of these lessons?


The infrared satellite image above from NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center Earth Sciences Office shows Hurricane Katrina making landfall on the Gulf Coast on August 29th, 2005.

1. Use Common Sense + Better Building Codes.
Many homes have been built to building codes – very old homes may have been built before building codes were written or enforced. Our building codes set minimum standards for the wind and snow loads a home must withstand. In some parts of the country, the building code includes provisions for hurricanes, floods, earthquakes or other expected natural disasters like wildfires. Many building codes call out these criteria by county and there may be local provisions you’re required to meet.

When a local authority advises you to leave your home due to a threat from a natural disaster like a hurricane, they take into account whether homes in the affected area were built to withstand the threat of the natural disaster. If your home wasn’t built to the standards of our building codes or you haven’t maintained your home, it may not be able to withstand the force of a natural disaster.

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina and other natural disasters, additional building code requirements have been written. Georgia’s Disaster Resilient Building Code (DRBC) appendices are a good example. They’re voluntary – they can be adopted by a local authority to increase wind loads, raise flood elevations or address other issues that put people’s lives and property at risk. Even if your local building authority hasn’t adopted stronger protections against natural disasters, you can still use them for your home.

2. Use Code-Plus Construction.
Building codes should always be considered a minimum standard – the worst that will be accepted by the local authority. You can use a code-plus (better than the building code) program to improve some of the standards for your home.

If you’re concerned about natural disasters, the FORTIFIED Home program from the Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety is an example of a code-plus program that might be helpful. You can ask your architect, local authority and insurance company for other recommendations and then choose the best options from the programs you think will be helpful.

3. Don’t Move at the Speed of Government.
Media coverage and the rise of social media in the decade following Hurricane Katrina has helped many of us realize our local, state and federal government officials can only do so much in the face of a natural disaster – even those that we can see coming. It’s healthy to know our limitations so we can plan to protect ourselves and our families.

Atlanta’s winter storms in 2014 are a good example. Atlanta received a couple of inches of snow/freezing rain followed by temperatures in the teens. Many people were stranded on the ice and couldn’t get home. That was a wake-up call for residents who realized in hindsight that they went out into conditions for which they weren’t prepared – inadequate clothing, no water, etc.

The so-called “SnowJam 2014” also helped us appreciate that we probably shouldn’t rely on the government to tell us the second worst commute in the country gets much worse when the roads in Atlanta’s hilly terrain are icy. It’s up to us to plan because our government doesn’t know the length of our commute, whether we need to stop to pick-up family members, what resources we have immediately available, etc.

4. Plan for Disaster.
We’ve come to rely on technology like mobile phones. They’re incredibly convenient because they provide so much information and connectivity – until they stop working.

It’s surprising how many people no longer remember the telephone numbers of their family members. It’s also surprising how many family members have no emergency plan in case they are separated or out of communication. Do you have an agreed local meeting place AND point of contact in another city who can help you coordinate? (Make sure you let your point of contact know you’re relying on them to be available by phone and email if there’s a local disaster.)

Planning for disaster is relatively simple and doesn’t require significant investment. You can probably put together disaster kits for your home and cars in under an hour. Making and sharing a plan with your family may take just a few minutes. Then all you have to do is maintain the kits and talk through the plan often enough that it’s easy to remember. That’s not much to ask.

5. Don’t be a Victim of Indirect Death or Damage.
Hurricane Katrina made landfall in South Florida before it moved into the Gulf of Mexico and struck the Gulf Coast. Twelve deaths in South Florida were attributed to the storm. Three of those deaths, one quarter of the deaths, were caused by carbon monoxide poisoning resulting from of people who misused generators during a power outage. One person was killed during debris removal and one person was killed in a vehicle crash. Almost half of the deaths were indirect and probably avoidable.

If you live an area that has expected natural disasters like hurricanes, you need to prepare your home in advance. People are killed because they choose to protect their home and its contents from natural disasters yet none of those things survives the hurricane, flood, wildfire, etc.

In addition to indirect deaths, we also damage our property with temporary protections. For example, people who prepared for Hurricane Katrina by nailing or screwing plywood to the outside of their homes (over windows and doors) made holes in the exterior of their building that contribute to water and air leaks. Predictable disasters, even if they’re not frequent, need permanent preparations like hurricane shutters.

In Conclusion
If you’ve been paying attention, the unifying thread that’s woven through each of the five points – one learned from our collective experience – is don’t rely on others. Each of us needs to be prepared.

In addition to preparing for ourselves, it’s also helpful to consider others in our planning. For example, if you’re saving water in case of emergency, give some thought to saving more than you’ve figured you need so you can help a neighbor or someone caught away from their home.

As always, please leave questions and comments below – especially if you’ve got any lessons learned or good advice on getting and staying prepared for a disaster. Thanks!

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