Undergraduate Honors Theses

Thesis Defended

Spring 2012

Document Type




First Advisor

Prof. William Travis


In 2005 Hurricane Katrina made landfall in Southeastern Louisiana as a powerful Category Three hurricane. The hurricane protection systems in place for the city of New Orleans and surrounding parishes were overwhelmed sending billions of gallons of water into local communities. This atypical flood volume inundated 80% of New Orleans, impeding rescue efforts and devastating infrastructure and emergency resources. Over 1,500 lives were lost and an estimated 125 billion US dollars were spent on emergency response, recovery, and reconstruction. Hurricane Katrina is the worst disaster in the United States in over a century. This paper analyzes why Hurricane Katrina was such a catastrophe. Three major reasons for disaster are identified: construction of piecemeal levee systems, wetland loss, and social vulnerabilities. Throughout the history of southeastern Louisiana’s settlement, the natural hydrography was manipulated in order to protect life and property from flooding; a fragmented levee system was constructed based on underestimated storm risk resulting in the hurricane protection system that failed during Hurricane Katrina. Similarly, increased residential development, canal building, and natural land subsidence processes have degraded natural wetlands which function as protective barriers from storm surges. The population of New Orleans exhibited high social vulnerabilities, as many Katrina victims lacked the tools, knowledge, and capabilities necessary to evacuate in a timely manner or to exercise other self-protective measures. These three elements—fragmented levee systems, wetland degradation, and high social vulnerabilities—exacerbate the level of vulnerability of property and people along the Gulf Coast. In order to reduce the vulnerability, and the probability of a similar catastrophic event occurring, an analysis of Hurricane Katrina can be utilized to improve future mitigation planning. Better mitigation could yield improvements in levee quality; areas of dramatic wetland decline can be monitored and perhaps protected from future development, and heavily populated areas with high social vulnerabilities can be recognized and considered priority zones for mitigation plans.