Katrina, 16 Years Later: A Look Back

This year’s Atlantic hurricane season will mark 16 years since Hurricane Katrina hit – the costliest storm in United States history, and Louisiana’s deadliest.

Katrina first brought its devastation ashore to New Orleans on August 29, 2005, with a 30-foot storm surge and a broken levee system. The damage and flooding was catastrophic. Ron Albright, Senior Estimator from Minnesota-based Clean Response, remembers it well. Once the impact this hurricane would have became clear to him, Albright would travel to be a part of the restoration efforts in New Orleans and the surrounding area. As an RIA member who witnessed the aftermath first hand and worked on reversing the damage, Albright sat down with C&R to give his own historic account as a restoration professional.

AHEAD OF THE STORM

The active hurricane seasons in the years leading up to Hurricane Katrina helped Albright, who has been in the
restoration industry since 1997, see that Katrina was different.

“We saw what was happening in Florida during 2003 and 2004, so we knew that Katrina was coming and that it might be significant,” Albright explained.

Once it made landfall and reports started coming in of the severity of the storm, Albright immediately hit the road. “Being based in Minnesota was a benefit, to some degree,” he said. “We were coming from an area that was far away from any effects of a storm, so we could mobilize right away – we weren’t recovering from being hit. I had a bunch of equipment staged in Florida, so I flew there and started driving over the next day.”

When asked if there was a concern about the travel time, Albright pointed out that when there’s an event like Hurricane Katrina, you can’t get into the affected area right away. But Katrina was to affect so much more than just Louisiana, as he would soon discover.

A MASSIVE HIT

While restoration after a hurricane was nothing new to Albright, what stood out most to him and his team was the extent of the damage over a massive area. “Katrina’s reach was literally from New Orleans to Alabama,” Albright said. According to Hurricane Katrina: A Nation Still Unprepared (a special report by the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs). Hurricane Katrina’s path of destruction spanned 90,000 square miles of land, equaling the size of the United Kingdom.

“When we drove from Florida in, we started seeing damage in Alabama, and once we hit Mississippi, Gulfport and Biloxi were devastated,” said Albright. “They had 30 feet of [storm] surge, which is unheard of. That is what made Katrina different– how big of an area it covered, and the amount of damage across such a big area.”

About 300,000 homes were destroyed or made unlivable, according to Hurricane Katrina: A Nation Still Unprepared. And according to the Tropical Cyclone Report, Hurricane Katrina (written by the National Hurricane Center), the total cost of damage was estimated to be $108 billion, making it the costliest hurricane in the history of the United States.

MAKING IT TO NEW ORLEANS

Because Albright and his team couldn’t get into New Orleans immediately after the devastation, they did work outside of the city: in Gulfport, Biloxi, and Slidell, cleaning out several area banks and car dealerships. Eventually they got permission to work in coastal New Orleans and then downtown, in the heart of the city.

“One thing I remember the most is the first time we drove through downtown, it was just deserted,” Albright said. He compared it to the 2007 post-apocalyptic action thriller film, I Am Legend. “There were so few people around, and maybe we would see one car in a major metropolitan area. It was creepy.”

Albright recalls the devastation in New Orleans and the surrounding area: buildings with all the windows blown out by Katrina’s 174 mile-per-hour winds; buildings and cars flooded out by unprecedented storm surges; and the additional damage from the failure of New Orleans’s levee system.

“It was incredible to see homes in the middle of the road,” Albright said. “A casino barge that was four stories high and hundreds of feet long was just sitting in the road, on the opposite side of the ocean.”

THE LONG-TAIL

The extent of damage over such a large area meant that Albright and Clean Response were busy for weeks. For the next month they worked in the New Orleans area drying out and restoring water-damaged buildings, and cleaning up shattered glass.

“The biggest building we worked on was right across the lake [Lake Pontchartrain] from New Orleans, an eight- to 10-story building, and all the windows were blown out. That was a little easier than having to clean out buildings that had 10-feet of groundwater flooding, but the work was still so extensive, over a huge area, for a long time.”

It turned out that Katrina was just the beginning, though, as the hits kept coming. Category 3 Hurricane Rita made landfall in Louisiana and Texas just one month after Katrina, keeping Albright and his team busy beyond Katrina’s cleanup.

THE COMEBACK

When asked what he thinks about knowing he was part of getting the New Orleans area back on its feet after such a devastating event, Albright is humble. “I don’t see my work as contributing to rebuilding an entire city—my connection lies with the jobs done.” RIA

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