Did Katrina Make Us Take Hurricanes Seriously?

A little over 15 years ago, Hurricane Katrina devastated the gulf states with powerful winds, surge flooding and unforeseen engineering failures. To date, it remains the costliest U.S. natural catastrophe with an estimated USD 160 billion in economic losses.

Katrina was a unique storm in its formation. It first made landfall as a Category 1 storm in South Florida on August 25, 2005. After crossing South Florida, Katrina emerged in the Gulf of Mexico, where the storm rapidly intensified and its wind field significantly expanded. By August 28, Hurricane Katrina reached Category 5 intensity, with peak winds reaching 175 mph. It was an unusually large storm, with tropical storm-force winds extending 200 nautical miles from its center. This massive and powerful system in the Gulf of Mexico allowed storm surge to take shape. On August 29, 2005, Katrina made landfall as a strong Category 3 hurricane with maximum sustained winds of 125 mph near Buras, Louisiana.

The center of the storm passed just 27 miles away from New Orleans, causing a 20 ft storm surge to crack open the levees and engulf 80% of the city. Katrina and its flooding exposed engineering oversights in the deadliest and most expensive way possible – as it was happening. Like many other disasters, it taught us the importance of being prepared and expecting the unexpected. A decade and a half later, has it changed the way we mitigate hurricane risk?

Changes in Hurricane Preparedness

Back in 1992, after Hurricane Andrew devastated South Florida, local authorities started to rethink the way they built commercial and residential structures as well as how they communicated to residents before and during a hurricane. Katrina caused even more profound changes in how we build, communicate, evacuate and protect property:

  • A heightened sense of awareness among local authorities, businesses and residents in hurricane-prone areas has helped facilitate emergency response plans that are faster and more efficient, and more focused on post-event support
  • The corporate sector today better understands the potential impact of a hurricane – including lost revenue from physical property damage to non-damage business interruption
  • Comprehensive hurricane preparedness plans and kits have become standard practice in risk assessment and underwriting
  • Minimum building code requirements account for higher wind speeds (115 mph) and more debris impact, as well as excessive flooding from storm surges and torrential rains across multiple state areas beyond the coastline. Inland territories in Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas have implemented new building code guidelines to help better mitigate the windstorm risk

The Growing Cost of Hurricanes

However, the cost of a hurricane like Katrina has not stayed stagnant either. If a storm with the same characteristics were to hit the US in 2020 with the same wind and storm surge as 2005, but with current exposure information and updated flood protection and vulnerability assumptions, the total economic toll from such an event could likely exceed USD 175 billion. And that is with New Orleans currently only having 80% of the population it did in 2005. These figures illustrate that despite the area's lower population and strengthened wind speed, surge and flood protection systems, economic losses from natural hazards like Katrina continue to increase.

Hurricane preparedness today means more than complying with the recommendations of your local authorities in the days preceding the storm. A comprehensive preparedness effort helps you optimize your property protection, establishes an emergency communication plan and outlines your first – and proper – steps to recovery.

Download our latest Windstorm Preparedness Guide and take hurricanes seriously.