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Aug. 29, 2005: Katrina Makes Landfall

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Thousands of people were stranded without food or water

Thousands of people were stranded without food or water

Katrina was a whirling menace, wider and more desperate than any hurricane the Gulf South had seen in years. The Category 3 storm first made landfall at Buras, La., on the morning of Aug. 29, 2005. Then the man-made disaster began. Large sections of levees built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in the 1960s were breeched and crumbled like clay. Communities were swallowed up in floodwaters. Katrina destroyed 90,000 square miles of Gulf South infrastructure. Millions of lives were shattered. More than 1,800 people died. Watching one’s own community collapse caused disoriented survivors to weep and wait for the U.S. cavalry to swoop down with massive amounts of federal aid and a kit-bag full of normalcy. It never happened. An unbearable humidity embalmed Gulf South homes with stuffy, aquariumlike air. Breathing became difficult. Electricity was out for weeks. Everything smelled rotten. People trapped in attics by rising waters desperately punched holes into their rooftops with hammers and axes, praying to be rescued. And they waited … and waited. And then they waited some more. History will show that Katrina helped burst the bubble of American can-doism like never before. Government ineptitude proved as cruel as the natural disaster itself, spawning the largest U.S. refugee crisis since the Civil War. The curtain had been pulled back on police corruption, endemic poverty, unattended-to coastal erosion, and shoddy engineering. Rescue efforts were marred by bureaucratic inertia, bad preplanning, and hurry-up-and-waitism. Was this really the same country that won D-Day and put a man on the moon?

Brinkley is a history professor at Rice University. He is the author of 2007’s award-winning The Great Deluge: Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans, and the Mississippi Gulf Coast

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