Hurricanes Katrina and Ike Devastate the Southern United States
Although the war on terrorism dominated George W. Bush’s presidency, he did attempt to make changes on domestic issues as well. Near the end of his final term, the blustery rhetoric in Washington was like a gentle summer breeze when compared to the hurricanes that blew into the South.
Hurricane Katrina devastates the Big Easy
On August 23, 2005, a hurricane formed over the Bahamas and headed toward the southeastern United States. Called Katrina, it crossed Florida, picked up strength over the Gulf of Mexico, and made landfall in southeast Louisiana on August 29.
While Katrina’s 125-mile-per-hour winds — sending beds flying out of hotel windows — and 10 inches of rain were bad enough, a storm surge of more than 28 feet devastated the Mississippi coastal cities of Gulfport and Biloxi. But the greatest damage was reserved for the region’s largest city — New Orleans.
Nicknamed the Big Easy, most of New Orleans is below sea level. Under Katrina’s onslaught, levees that were supposed to protect the city gave way in more than 50 places, and 80 percent of the city was flooded. While most of New Orleans’s 1.2 million residents were evacuated (many to the city of Houston, Texas), thousands either refused to leave or could not.
The disaster claimed more than 1,800 lives and destroyed 200,000 homes. Damage estimates ranged as high as $125 billion, making it the most expensive hurricane in U.S. history. It wasn’t until October 11 that the last of the floodwaters were pumped out.
By then, a hurricane of criticism had whipped up over the federal government’s response to the disaster. The criticism ranged from condemning the government’s slow response in some areas with regard to the evacuation process to providing adequate temporary housing after the storm. There were also charges that the slow response was due in part to the fact that many of New Orleans’s residents were poor African Americans. Bush’s approval ratings sank to the lowest of his presidency. But they would go even lower.
Hurricane Ike hits Texas
In September 2008, New Orleans was again evacuated when threatened by Hurricane Gustav. This time, the preparations and responses were better, and the levees held. But on the heels of Gustav came Ike.
The hurricane hit the Gulf Coast of Texas on September 13, dragging up a massive storm surge that drowned much of the city of Galveston. The storm killed 82 in the United States, with as many as 200 people missing, and did an estimated $27 billion worth of property damage.
Once again, the federal government was criticized for its post-storm performance. Texas officials complained that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) had been slow to provide housing for those left homeless by the hurricane and to provide funds for cleaning up the mess. “The response from Washington has been pretty underwhelming,” Texas Gov. Rick Perry said in mid-November, two months after the storm. “This is really irritating.”
But hurricanes, and even irritated governors, paled in the face of another kind of storm, an economic tempest that enveloped the nation and most of the rest of the world.