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Anatomy of a National Disaster: The Consequential Timeline of Hurricane Katrina

This timeline spans two weeks from 22 August (one week prior to landfall) to 5 September (one week after landfall) – all times CDT.

(For an understanding of emergency management responsibilities – who is responsible for what – read “Emergency Management Protocol in Natural Disasters – Individual and Local, State and Federal Government Responsibilities”)


The National Hurricane Center (NHC) tracks a storm in the Atlantic.


The NHC classifies a storm in the Caribbean “Bahamas Tropical Depression 12.”


The NHC continues to track the storm and issues warnings for South Florida. The storm system is upgraded to Tropical Storm Katrina.


1600: Katrina officially becomes a Category 1 hurricane (fourth of the season), according to the NHC. 1830: Moving across south Florida, Katrina causes 11 deaths and kills power to more than 1.2 million people. 2300: Despite being over land for more than four hours, Katrina’s maximum sustained winds are still being clocked at 75 mph as it moves into the Gulf.


0500: After weakening briefly to a tropical storm, Katrina regains hurricane status and moves on to the Gulf of Mexico.

1130: The hurricane is upgraded to Category 2, with the storm’s feeder bands continuing to pound the lower Florida Keys.

1600: NHC warns that Katrina is expected to reach dangerous Category 4 intensity before making landfall in Mississippi or Louisiana.

2030: In anticipation of a possible landfall, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour and Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco declare states of emergency. On Friday night before the storm hit Max Mayfield of the NHC took the unprecedented action of calling NOLA Mayor Ray Nagin and Gov. Blanco personally to plead with them to begin MANDATORY evacuation of New Orleans and they said they’d take it under consideration. This was after the NOAA buoy 240 miles south had recorded 68’ waves before it was destroyed.

Local, state, and federal disaster officials meet to discuss FEMA Disaster Declaration No. 1601 that was issued as a result of tropical storm Cindy in July. “Shouldn’t we just apply for Katrina money now? It would save time and taxpayers’ money,” joked Jim Baker, operations superintendent for the East Jefferson Levee District, one of the public agencies in line for a FEMA check.

The Mississippi Valley Division of the Army Corps of Engineers activates teams along the Mississippi and Louisiana Gulf Coasts to prepare for a potential response to Hurricane Katrina.


0500: Katrina is upgraded to Category 3, a major hurricane, with the Gulf Coast in its path.

Nagin calls for a voluntary evacuation of the city. The emergency plans rely on citizens to bring their own 3-day supply of food and water to the Superdome and Convention Center. Current Louisiana Emergency Evacuation guidelines allow use of public school buses. They were used to transport the elderly and those without transportation to the superdome. Highways leading out of New Orleans are filled with bumper-to-bumper traffic. Several major interstates are converted to one-way routes away from the city.

NHC Director Max Mayfield and President Bush call on Mayor Nagin to declare a mandatory evacuation.

Governor Blanco requests that President Bush declare a major disaster for the State of Louisiana. President Bush declares a Federal state of emergency in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. The emergency declaration provides for federal assistance and funding and assigns to FEMA, by law, the responsibility for coordinating relief efforts. (For an understanding of emergency management responsibilities – who is responsible for what – read “Emergency Management Protocol in Natural Disasters – Individual and Local, State and Federal Government Responsibilities”)

1700: Mayor Nagin issues a voluntary evacuation order. Nagin says late Saturday that he is having his legal staff look into whether he can order a mandatory evacuation of the city, a step he’s been hesitant to take because of potential liability on the part of the city for closing hotels and other businesses. “Come the first break of light in the morning, you may have the first mandatory evacuation of New Orleans,” Nagin said.

Mayor Nagin and Governor Blanco hold a press conference and the Mayor urges residents to take the storm seriously saying to residents of low lying areas, “We want you to take this a little more seriously and start moving – right now, as a matter of fact,” Nagin said he would open the Superdome as a shelter of “last resort” for people with “special needs.” If seeking shelter at the Superdome, Nagin said, “No weapons, no large items, and bring small quantities of food for three or four days, to be safe,” he said.

During the day, residents of Louisiana’s low-lying areas are told they must evacuate; residents in other low-lying areas are urgently advised to do so. President Bush again declares a state of emergency in Louisiana.

“This is not a test, as your governor said earlier today. This is the real thing,” said NHC Director Max Mayfield. “The bottom line is this is a worst-case scenario and everybody needs to recognize it,” he said.

2300: NHC issues a hurricane warning from Morgan City, Louisiana, to the Alabama-Florida border, an area that includes New Orleans. A warning means that hurricane conditions are expected within the warning area within the next 24 hours. National Hurricane Center warns officials that Katrina is strengthening and will probably make landfall as a Category 4 or 5.


0040: Katrina escalates to Category 4 strength, heading for the Gulf Coast. The last time Mississippi or Louisiana saw landfall from a Category 4 or stronger storm was 1969 with Hurricane Camille.

0700: Hurricane Katrina intensifies to Category 5, the worst and highest category on the Saffir-Simpson scale.

0800: Superdome opens for shelter.

FEMA Director Michael Brown, DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff as well as local and state officials are informed by NHC Director Max Mayfield via electronic briefing that the storm will cause massive damage and flooding – including levee breaches – in New Orleans 32 hours before the eye of the storm makes landfall. Mayfield briefs the President later in the day via video conference.

0930: The Mayor’s office announces at 9:30 AM that RTA (Regional Transit Authority) busses will pick people up at 12 locations throughout the city and take them to shelters – including the Superdome. This is in accordance with both the Comprehensive Emergency Management Plan for the city of New Orleans and The State of Louisiana Emergency Operations Plan Supplement 1B, which clearly states that people who cannot be evacuated will be taken to “last resort” shelters such as the Superdome.

1000: As Katrina reaches 175 mph winds, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin orders mandatory evacuations as the storm seems to beat a direct path to the city. Gov. Kathleen Blanco, standing beside the mayor at a news conference, said President Bush called and personally appealed for a mandatory evacuation for the low-lying city, which is prone to flooding. “We are facing a storm that most of us have long feared,” Nagin said. “This is a once in a lifetime event. The city of New Orleans has never seen a hurricane of this magnitude hit it directly.”

1100: The city puts its contraflow traffic system in effect so that both sides of major highways will allow for traffic out of the city.

1130: President Bush issues statement about hurricane danger.

During the day, President Bush declares a state of emergency in Mississippi and orders federal assistance. NHS says low-lying areas along the Gulf Coast could expect storm surges of up to 25 feet as the storm, with top sustained winds of 160 mph to hit early the next day.

1500: More than 10,000 people had either made their way into the Superdome or were standing outside. Those with medical problems were shuffled over to one side of the dome. “The people arriving on this side of the building are expected to fend for themselves,” said Terry Ebbert, the city’s homeland security director. “We have some water.” “I’m not worried about what is tolerable or intolerable,” he [Ebbert] said. “I’m worried about, whether you are alive on Tuesday.” About 150 National Guard soldiers, New Orleans police and civil sheriff’s deputies patrol the facility. Some weapons are confiscated.

1800: Louisiana Senators send a joint letter to the President thanking him for his actions and requesting that he visit the storm ravaged area “as soon as practical.”

2000: About 26,000 people are taking refuge in the Superdome. To help keep them fed and hydrated, the Louisiana National Guard delivered three truckloads of water and seven truckloads of MREs – short for “meals ready to eat.” That’s enough to supply 15,000 people for three days, according to Col. Jay Mayeaux, deputy director of the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Emergency Preparedness.

2200: Katrina advisory by the National Hurricane Center has the storm moving slightly to the east of New Orleans and weakening. Louis Armstrong Airport closes.


0400: Hurricane Katrina is downgraded to a strong Category 4 storm. More than 4,000 National Guardsmen are mobilizing in Memphis to help police New Orleans streets.

“Aircraft are positioned from Hammond to the Texas border ready to fly behind the storm to check damage after it passes over New Orleans,” said Maj. Gen. Bennett C. Landreneau, head of the Louisiana National Guard. “Search and rescue operations are being coordinated by the Guard with the state Wildlife and Fisheries Department and Coast Guard poised to help search for survivors stranded by the storm. Guardsmen are also deployed at the Jackson Barracks ready to head into the city using high-water vehicles,” Landreneau said.

0610: Katrina makes second landfall near Grand Isle, Louisiana as a Category 4 Hurricane, with maximum sustained winds of 145 mph.

0800: NOLA residents show signs of relief after worst of hurricane passes, but waters are rising on the levees. Six to eight feet of water in the Lower Ninth Ward and two hours later, ten feet of water in St. Bernard levee.

1100: Katrina makes another landfall near the Louisiana-Mississippi state line with 125 mph winds. The storm’s daylong rampage claims lives and ravages property in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, where coastal areas are under several feet of water.

FEMA Director Brown sends a memo to DHS Secretary Chertoff requesting the additional 1,000 FEMA employees engaged in victims assistance (aiding residents in filling out disaster relief forms) and community outreach be dispatched to Louisiana. Brown indicates that the employees have two days to report to LA Homeland Security headquarters.

1300: Two major flood-control levees are breached and the National Weather Service reports “total structural failure” in parts of New Orleans. Many are feared dead in flooded neighborhoods under as much as 20 feet of water.

1400: New Orleans officials publicly confirm 17th Street Canal breach.

1500: New Orleans Homeland Security Director Terry Ebbertt says, “Everybody who had a way or wanted to get out of the way of this storm was able to.”

President Bush declares a major disaster for Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama. Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour describes “catastrophic damage” along the coast. More than 1.3 million homes and businesses in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama were without electricity, according to utility companies. Dozens now dead.

Red Cross issues a statement. Expects largest recovery operation ever: American Red Cross spokesman Victor Howell said 750 to 1,000 Red Cross personnel are now at work on hurricane recovery in Louisiana, and 2,000 more volunteers will be here in the next few days. The Red Cross will bring in three large mobile kitchens to prepare 500,000 meals per day. There are 40 shelters statewide, housing about 32,000 people, “and you’re going to have more,” Howell said.

“FEMA said give us a list of your needs,” said Nagin, referring to the Federal Emergency Management Agency. “And let me tell you, we’re giving them a hell of a list.”

2200: More than 12 hours after making landfall, one of the most powerful hurricanes to hit the northern Gulf Coast in half a century is downgraded to a tropical storm. Remnants head north toward Tennessee and the Ohio River Valley, spurring harsh storms and tornadoes.

Eighty percent of New Orleans is underwater.


New Orleans is left with no power, no drinking water, dwindling food supplies, widespread looting, fires and steadily rising waters from major levee breaches. Efforts to limit the flooding are unsuccessful and force authorities to try evacuating the thousands of people at city shelters.

Fox News correspondent Major Garrett reports that the American Red Cross was ready to go to the Superdome “on Monday or Tuesday” to assist in the relief of the 25,000 people who had taken refuge there but were prevented by the Louisiana Department of Homeland Security from doing so. According to Garrett, the reason given was because their presence “would keep people from evacuating and encourage others to come into the city.” This is confirmed by Red Cross.

Democrats from NOLA to Congress start blame-game – calling for Congressional inquiry, but in the days that follow, it appears that the greatest share of blame will land at the feet of Democrats in Louisiana – so Democrats reject Republican offer to establish committee of inquiry.

4,725 LA National Guardsmen deployed. Prisoner evacuation from two jails begins.

Coast Guard and Army helicopters continue rooftop evacuations.

At the Wal-Mart on Tchoupitoulas Street, an initial effort to hand out provisions to stranded citizens quickly disintegrates into mass looting. Authorities at the scene say bedlam erupted after the giveaway was announced over the radio.

City officials say they might open the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center as a temporary refuge to shelter an estimated 50,000 people made homeless by the storm, but do not advise FEMA or LA Homeland Security officials that they plan to use the Center to house evacuees.

FEMA deploys 23 Disaster Medical Assistance Teams from all across the U.S. to staging areas in Alabama, Tennessee, Texas, and Louisiana and is now moving them into impacted areas. Seven Urban Search and Rescue task forces and two Incident Support Teams have been deployed and propositioned in Shreveport, La., and Jackson, Miss., including teams from Florida, Indiana, Ohio, Maryland, Missouri, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia. Three more Urban Search and Rescue teams are in the process of deployment. FEMA is moving supplies and equipment into the hardest hit areas as quickly as possible, especially water, ice, meals, medical supplies, generators, tents and tarps.

The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) dispatches more than 390 trucks to deliver millions of meals ready to eat, millions of gallons of water, tarps, millions of pounds of ice, mobile homes, generators, containers of disaster supplies, and forklifts to flood damaged areas. DOT has helicopters and a plane assisting delivery of essential supplies.

The National Guard of the four most heavily impacted states are providing support to civil authorities as well as generator, medical and shelter with approximately 7,500 troops on State Active Duty. The National Guard is augmenting civilian law enforcement capacity; not acting in lieu of it.

Hospitals are being evacuated and rescue operations continue. The Governor made it clear that search and rescue was the highest priority: Blanco said that while search and rescue operations continued that officials were also getting supplies to hospitals and people who sought refuge at the Superdome, which is receiving more residents by the hour. After officials have completed all of their rescue operations, they will begin to assess how to evacuate other people in the city who are in high, dry locations.

Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour says Katrina inflicted more damage to the state’s beach towns than did Hurricane Camille, and its death toll is likely to be higher. In Mobile, Alabama, the storm pushed water from Mobile Bay into downtown, submerging large sections of the city.

The U.S. military starts to move ships and helicopters to the region at the request of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. USS Bataan was positioned near New Orleans prior to Katrina making landfall, and begins relief operations.

President Bush establishes “White House Task Force on Hurricane Katrina Response.”

DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff activates the National Response Plan and declares Katrina an “incident of national significance”: The National Response Plan (NRP) fully mobilizes the resources of the entire federal government to support response and recovery efforts for state and local authorities – particularly in the event of a catastrophic incident. Secretary Chertoff has declared the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina an incident of national significance – the first-ever use of this designation.

2215: Governor Blanco releases a statement calling for the evacuation of the Superdome. She set no timetable for the withdrawal but, “It’s a very, very desperate situation,” Blanco said. “It’s imperative that we get them out. The situation is degenerating rapidly.”

Katrina is downgraded to a tropical depression.


President Bush surveys Gulf Coast damage from air as he returns to Washington, and tells ABC “I don’t think anybody anticipated the breach of the levees. They did appreciate a serious storm but these levees got breached and as a result, much of New Orleans is flooded and now we’re having to deal with it and will.”

The entire region is declared a public health emergency amid fears of diseases that could spread because of the contaminated, stagnant water. Evacuations from the Louisiana Superdome to the Houston Astrodome begin. About 20,000 people are expected to be transferred from New Orleans to Houston. When asked about the number of dead, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin replies, “Minimum, hundreds. Most likely, thousands.”

First responders are kept out of New Orleans as gangs of looters shoot at them. Jeff Winn of the New Orleans police SWAT team says, “We’re having some pretty intense gun battles breaking out around the city. Armed gangs of eight to 15 young men are riding around in pickup trucks looting and raping.” Some 600 of New Orleans 1,600 police officers fail to report for duty.

1000: Governor Blanco makes the request for President Bush to send Federal troops to help with evacuations and rescues. They could not be deployed before as the constitution requires that the Governor make a specific request to have federal troops deployed in a state.

Governor Blanco calls for a total evacuation of the city of New Orleans, saying, “We’ve sent buses in. We will be either loading them by boat, helicopter, anything that is necessary.” Blanco says she wanted the Superdome – which had become a shelter of last resort for thousands – evacuated within two days, along with other gathering points for storm refugees.

FEMA is providing 475 buses for the convoy and the Astrodome’s schedule has been cleared through December for housing evacuees, a spokeswoman for Texas Gov. Rick Perry said.

State officials say they hope that bringing in the Army to help with search, rescue and relief efforts will allow National Guard troops to redirect their efforts to restoring order and curtail the widespread looting taking place in New Orleans and elsewhere. “We’re trying to shift our resources,” said Denise Bottcher, a Blanco spokeswoman.

“This is one of the largest, if not the largest evacuations in this country,” said Col. Jeff Smith, deputy director of the Louisiana Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness.

1340: State Secretary of Transportation and Development Johnny Bradberry says Lake Pontchatrain has receded by two feet since Tuesday as water levels equalized between the lake and the flooded city interior. “The good news here is that we’ve stabilized. Water is not rising in the city,” Bradberry said.

HHS Secretary Mike Leavitt Wednesday declares a federal public health emergency and accelerates efforts to create up to 40 emergency medical shelters to provide care for evacuees and victims of Hurricane Katrina. Working with its federal partners, HHS is helping provide and staff 250 beds in each shelter for a total of 10,000 beds for the region. Ten of these facilities will be staged within the next 72 hours and another 10 will be deployed within the next 100 hours after that. In addition, HHS is deploying up to 4,000 medically-qualified personnel to staff these facilities and to meet other health care needs in this region.

Governor Blanco issues an Executive Order allowing the National Guard to seize school busses in order to help in the evacuation:

National Guard spokesman Lt. Col. Pete Schneider, said the order, signed by Gov. Kathleen Blanco late Wednesday, means “we are going to take the buses. We need to get people out of New Orleans. … Either they will give them up or we will take them.”


7,500 National Guardsmen from AR, CO, KS, MO, NV, OH, OK and TX are deployed in Louisiana. In flooded New Orleans, stranded people remain in buildings, on roofs, in the backs of trucks or gathered in large groups on higher ground. Violence continues to disrupt relief efforts as authorities rescue trapped residents and try to evacuate thousands of others.

National Guardsmen accompanied by buses (475 in all) and supply trucks arrive at the Superdome. President Bush tells ABC: “I fully understand people wanting things to have happened yesterday.”

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff announces that 4,200 National Guard troops trained as military police will be deployed to New Orleans over the next three days. Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco requests the mobilization of 40,000 National Guard troops. In an interview he admits he knows nothing of the people stranded at the convention center. FEMA Director Brown says he just heard about people stranded at the convention center “a few hours ago.”

Governor Blanco announces at a press conference that there are less than 2,400 people left at the Superdome.

The Defense Department announces the deployment of an additional 30,000 troops to the Gulf region.

State and Federal authorities begin the evacuations of Charity and University Hospitals. They are halted briefly when shots are fired at helicopters evacuating patients.

Gasoline prices spike as high as $5 a gallon in some areas as consumers fearing a gas shortage race to the pumps.


The Coast Guard announces it has rescued more than 10,000 victims of the hurricane and flood.

President Bush visits New Orleans, taking a helicopter tour with Mayor Nagin. According to the Mayor, Bush tells him that “he [the President] was fully committed to getting us the resources we need,” Nagin said in the tattered Hyatt hotel next to the Superdome. “I told him I knew we could work together, and he said he understood.”

Gov. Blanco rejects Bush administration proposal asking her to request a federal takeover of the evacuation of New Orleans. Louisiana officials rejected the request after talks throughout the night, concerned that such a move would be comparable to a federal declaration of martial law.

President Bush visits Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana, and later signs a $10.5 billion disaster relief bill.

Tired and angry people stranded at the convention center in New Orleans welcome a supply convoy carrying food, water and medicine.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers estimate it will take 36 to 80 days to drain the city.

Texas officials say nearly 154,000 evacuees have arrived there.

Members of the Congressional Black Caucus criticize the pace of relief efforts, saying response was slow because those most affected are poor and black.


Officials in New Orleans clear final evacuees from the Louisiana Superdome and Convention Center.

Utility companies work to restore power to more than 1 million Gulf Coast customers.

The Army Corps of Engineers brings in pumps and generators from around the nation to help get New Orleans pumps back on line and bail out the city.

Water and air rescue efforts continue in New Orleans; the U.S. Coast Guard says it has rescued more than 17,000 people, almost twice as many as it had saved in the previous 50 years combined, but that thousands of people remain stranded. Helicopters drop emergency food and water to people awaiting rescue.


New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin announces plans to give his police officers some R&R, and asks FEMA to fund a week in Los Vegas for all NOLA police officers.


17th Street Canal breach closed with truckloads of rock and sandbags. Canal reopened so it can be used for pumping water out of city.

Suburban Jefferson Parish, across the 17th Street Canal from the levee breach that flooded much of New Orleans, begins allowing residents to return temporarily to retrieve their belongings.

Officials encourage residents remaining in New Orleans to evacuate. Deputy Police Chief Warren Riley said that “there is no reason – no jobs, no food – no reason for them to stay.”

President Bush makes his second visit to the stricken region since Katrina struck, meeting with Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco and other officials at the state’s relief headquarters in Baton Rouge.


President Bush asks Congress for an additional $50 billion in aid, and a week later proposes a relief package that may cost more than $200 billion, but includes private sector initiatives, tax relief and incentives, etc., which make up part of that “cost.”

President Bush issues an executive order suspending the Davis-Bacon Act of 1931, allowing federal contractors rebuilding after Katrina to pay below the “prevailing” (read: union) wage.

FEMA director Michael Brown is removed from directing Hurricane Katrina relief efforts in New Orleans by Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff. He is replaced by Vice Admiral Thad W. Allen, chief of staff of the U.S. Coast Guard. Brown later resigns.

Forty-five more bodies are found in the flooded-out Memorial Medical Center in New Orleans. At this time, it is the largest cluster of corpses to be discovered in post-Katrina New Orleans. Louisiana’s death toll rises to nearly 280.

U.S. Congress approves tax-relief bill for Hurricane Katrina victims, including elimination of early withdrawal penalty on retirement accounts, forgiven debts are not taxable, and more.

After starting to allow residents back into the city, the Mayor of New Orleans orders another evacuation for fear of Hurricane Rita; with the levees and pumping system in a weakened state, even a near-miss could bring flooding back to areas that have begun to dry out.

The official death toll in all states is now 973. Mississippi has refused to raise its death toll above 218, or to explain why. Thousands of dead in Mississippi and Louisiana have not been counted, nor have the bodies been retrieved.

Virtually all of New Orleans 1.4 million residents had to evacuate, and most of the city – almost 180 square miles – was swamped by Lake Pontchartrain. The cost of hurricane damage and recovery may exceed $200 billion, a price tag far above the recovery costs of 9/11. (For reference, the material losses from Hurricane Andrew in 1992 totaled $12.5 billion.)

Inevitably, in the Katrina after-action report, serious errors at the local, state and national level of government will be discovered, and emergency plans will be revised accordingly.

But – individual preparedness is the front line of national preparedness. Local, state and federal government agencies could not begin to pre-position emergency-relief inventories for every contingency plan across the nation. Government agencies will likely not be able to meet even minimal needs for days or even weeks, depending on the nature of the catastrophe, and only then after the surge of response and recovery efforts is sufficient. ( posts an excellent resource page “Recommended Action Plan” at /useprpc/ with all you need to know about emergency preparedness measures for yourself and your family.)

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