Hurricane Katrina Facts, Damage, and Costs

What Made Katrina so Devastating

woman with dog after Hurricane Katrina
••• Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images

Hurricane Katrina was a Category 5 hurricane that hit Louisiana on August 29, 2005. It was the most destructive natural disaster in U.S. history. It impacted 93,000 square miles. Its storm surge crested at 27 feet. 

Katrina was massive before it even made landfall. Its hurricane force winds reached 75 nautical miles east of the center. Its maximum winds stretched 25 to 30 nautical miles. It forced the evacuation of 75 percent of the 819 manned oil platforms in the Gulf of Mexico. That reduced oil production by a third. Katrina did most of its damage after the National Hurricane Center reclassified down to a Category 3 hurricane. Like most hurricanes, it slowed down when it hit land.

The Facts on Hurricane Katrina's Damage

Damage and Insurance: Hurricane Katrina cost a staggering $125 billion. Insurance covered only $80 billion of the losses, according to Swiss Re. Flooding in New Orleans caused half the damage. It destroyed or rendered uninhabitable 300,000 homes. It left in its wake 118 million cubic yards of debris. That made cleanup efforts a mind-boggling challenge.

Economic Impact: Katrina's true cost was $250 billion, according to the University of North Texas Professor Bernard Weinstein. He includes both the damage and its economic impact. Weinstein estimated uninsured losses at $215 billion, and insured losses at $35 billion. The worst flooding occurred in New Orleans' 9th Ward. It was a low-income area that was mostly uninsured. These facts were discussed at the university during Katrina’s third anniversary on August 28, 2008.

The U.S. economy grew 3.6 percent in the third quarter, July through September. Afterward, it plummeted to 2.6 percent in the fourth quarter, from October to December. That's when production losses, such as gas pipe disruptions, showed up. The economy was healthy enough to shake it off. According to the National Accounts of the Bureau of Economic Analysis, it returned to a robust 5.4 percent growth rate in gross domestic product by the first quarter in 2006. 

Oil Costs: Katrina damaged 19 percent of U.S. oil production. It destroyed 113 offshore oil and gas platforms when combined with Hurricane Rita which followed soon afterward. They damaged 457 oil and gas pipelines and spilled almost as much oil as the Exxon Valdez disaster. That caused oil prices to increase by $3 a barrel. Gas prices almost reached $5 a gallon. In response, the U.S. government released oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserves. Katrina's impact is reflected in historical oil prices.

The Toll on Humans and Pets: Of more importance was the impact on people and animals. Katrina displaced 770,000 residents. That's more than the Dust Bowl migration during the Great Depression. Seventy-five thousand returned only to find their homes destroyed.

Katrina's death toll was 1,836 people. Old age was a contributing factor. Of those who died, 71 percent were 60 years or older. Half of them were 75 or more. There were 68 in nursing homes, possibly abandoned by their caretakers. Two hundred bodies went unclaimed. Over 700 people were unaccounted for. The storm killed or made homeless 600,000 pets. 

What Went Wrong

Katrina was devastating because of its path. Its 28-foot storm surge exposed engineering mistakes in New Orleans' levees. It destroyed 169 miles of the 350-mile system. That flooded 80 percent of the city. Floodwaters did not recede for weeks. Some neighborhoods were eradicated and never recovered.

If the levees had held, flooding would have been reduced by two-thirds. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers did not update all the levees with concrete support pilings. Some levees were not high enough. Others were built on soil that crumbled under the flooding.

Why Katrina Damaged the Economy So Much

The hurricane caused $260 million in damage to New Orleans' port, although it was open to ships a week later. The city's tourism industry generated $9.6 billion a year before Katrina. It attracted 7.1 million visitors each year. It only received 2.6 million tourists in 2006. 

Katrina struck the heart of Louisiana's sugar industry and destroyed 40 percent of the crop. The American Sugar Cane League estimated the annual crop valued at $500 million. This area of Louisiana had 50 chemical plants, producing 25 percent of the nation's chemicals. The nearby Mississippi coast was home to 12 casinos, which took in $1.3 billion each year. The storm also damaged oyster beds and the local shrimping industry. 

How Katrina's Damage Compares to Other Natural Disasters

Katrina's extensive damage was unusual. Typically, hurricanes that hit the densely populated East Coast cause the most damage. That's because there is a concentration of expensive highrise buildings.

Hurricane Harvey hovered over Houston for three days. It dropped 51 inches of rain, the most for a single storm in the continental United States.

Hurricane Irma was a Category 5 storm when it hit Puerto Rico on September 7, 2017. It was a Category 4 when it hit Key West, Florida. It was the largest Atlantic storm ever. Its 185 mph winds lasted for 37 hours, a new record. It's was fed by 86 degree water, unusually warm for the Atlantic. If Irma had hit Miami, the damage could have reached $300 billion, according to insurance firm Swiss Re. 

Global warming could create more hurricanes the size of Katrina. That's because warmer temperatures allow the atmosphere to hold more moisture. Rising sea levels make flooding more likely near Gulf Coast cities. Global warming also stalls weather patterns in the Gulf region. As a result, hurricanes linger longer.

Looking Ahead

Despite Hurricane Katrina's overwhelming damage, there is a light on the horizon. A report from the University of New Orleans found people were flocking back to the city. In 2017, there was a record 10 million visitors.