By Will Hall, Message Editor
NEW ORLEANS – A decade ago, it was difficult to see anything more than the devastation that accompanied Katrina as she swept across Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida. But looking back now, it’s possible to see the triumph that emerged from the tragedy.
After passing over the Florida panhandle as a moderate Category 1 hurricane, then weakening to a tropical storm, Katrina grew in ferocity fueled by the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico, growing in intensity to a 200-mile wide Category 5 tempest.
But before it made a predicted direct hit on New Orleans, dry air from the Midwest absorbed some of its energy, dropping it to a strong Category 3 system and causing it to shift direction, making landfall about 25 miles east of the city according to the Houston Chronicle. Moreover, the winds over New Orleans (where the weakest part of the storm passed) reached only Category 1 levels and the storm surge failed to top the levees as predicted.
But, where a natural disaster of the predicted magnitude failed to materialize in New Orleans a manmade one burst forth.
Levees along the Mississippi River held, but some holding back Lake Ponchartrain, Lake Borgne and the waterlogged swamps and marshes to the east and west of New Orleans were built atop sandy and erodible soil, and these failed, resulting in about 80 percent of the city being flooded, in some places up to 19 feet. A Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals study found that around 400, mostly elderly, residents drowned, largely in the neighborhoods near the compromised levees, and nearly 550 died from acute and chronic diseases in hospitals, nursing homes and private residences because of the interruption of hospital and emergency services. Additionally, about 70 percent of all occupied housing in New Orleans suffered damage The Data Center stated in its 2014 analysis.
Elsewhere, Katrina’s winds and storm surge had a more direct impact.
Mississippi’s coastline was devastated by a 27-foot storm surge, CBS News reported, and an estimated 90 percent of structures were flattened within half a mile of the coastline. The surge was so large and powerful that it traveled as much as 6 miles inland over land, and 12 miles up bays and rivers.
Winds of about 127 miles per hour tore through the state, snapping trees in half and leveling homes.
President Bush declared a state of emergency for the entire state, but the greatest damage occurred in the lower two-thirds of the state, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency provided full federal assistance to 49 of 82 counties—about 1 million of 2.9 million Mississippians were seriously impacted.
A storm tide about half the height of the one in Mississippi hit Alabama with the estimated 14-foot surge nearly destroying the infrastructure and the fishing fleet in Bayou La Batre. Tornadoes were spawned around Brewton and power was lost for nearly a week for about 600,000 in the state of 4.5 million residents.
In all, more than 1,800 persons lost their lives; the federal government spent about $120.5 billion ($75 billion in emergency relief operations); and, insurers paid out about $41 billion in claims—making Katrina the largest natural disaster in U.S. history, CNN summarized.
Southern Baptists launched and maintained one of the largest sustained disaster relief operations in its history—196 continuous days, according to Baptist Press. Indeed, on the order of 21,000 trained Southern Baptist volunteers and 500 Southern Baptist Disaster Relief units responded just in Louisiana and Mississippi. Nearly 15 million hot meals were served, 17,000 homes were cleared of mud and downed trees, while almost 8,000 children were cared for.
After emergency relief operations wound down, long-term projects began like Project NOAH (New Orleans Area Homes) Rebuild.
Southern Baptists invested nearly $25 million to build or re-build some 500 homes in the most ravaged of New Orleans neighborhoods and 26 water-damaged churches, schools and ministry centers were repaired, too.
Importantly, another 26,500 Southern Baptists participated as volunteer workers.
Homes were restored, so was hope, and, the message of eternal hope was shared as well.
When all was said and done, Southern Baptists had ministered to tens of thousands of storm victims and disaster relief responders, and, shared the good news to those who would receive it, with thousands responding by submitting their lives to Christ.
Baptist Message has produced a package of 15 stories that retells a number of the triumphs that emerged from the tragedy, with a special focus on the courage and faithfulness of Louisiana Baptists in facing the storm and the work and ministry that followed.
We trust readers will be blessed while recalling the many miracles God worked for us—some through us, some in us—while our state recovered and the nation looked on.