In what may prove to be the most expensive natural disaster in the U.S. in the past 50 years, both in terms of lives lost and property destruction, Hurricane Katrina has laid waste to great swaths of land from New Orleans to Biloxi, Miss., and parts of Alabama and Florida. Making matters worse, levees holding back the waters of Lake Pontchartrain broke, flooding the city of New Orleans, destroying homes and businesses, stranding citizens and making roads impassable.
At press time, there were no credible figures on casualties or costs incurred from the storm and ensuing floods, but estimates from New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin placed the death toll in his city alone in the “thousands.” Furthermore, some estimates put costs of the damage as high as $26 billion, according to wire reports.
Public transit agencies in the region, and transportation in general, have been severely crippled by the storm. Phone lines to the New Orleans Regional Transit Authority were busy or disconnected, while the agency’s Website was down. Attempts to contact the Coast Transit Authority in Biloxi and Wave Transit in Mobile, Ala., were also met with disconnected lines and busy signals.
Nancy Lohr, director of marketing for Escambia County Area Transit (ECAT) in Pensacola, Fla., said it’s too difficult and too early to evaluate the hurricane’s total impact on the area. “Everything is all hearsay at this point, and there are no plans yet,” she said. “There are many people evacuated to our area, and they are staying in hotels and shelters. These people just have no idea what in the heck they are going to do.”
Lohr said the Pensacola area was hit with tropical storm force winds in excess of 75 mph, but was spared the catastrophic conditions of areas west. “We suspended service on [the day the storm hit] but were able to resume full service the following day,” she said. “The emergency operations center was activated, and ECAT used vehicles and staff to transport people to shelters within the county.”
Meanwhile, the Federal Emergency Management Agency rushed to set up transportation options for evacuees by enlisting the help of transit agencies, private coach operators and local departments of transportation. During evacuations of New Orleans, 20,000 refugees were escorted to the Astrodome in Houston on more than 500 buses.
Transportation was expected to become an even greater problem in the storm’s aftermath as disruptions to oil pumping in the Gulf of Mexico pushed fuel prices to record highs.
Katrina Fast Facts
The event: Hurricane Katrina, after killing 11 and causing moderate damage a week before in Florida, touched land in southern Louisiana Monday, Aug. 29.
The severity: A Class 4 hurricane with sustained winds of more than 145 mph, Katrina pounded areas in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida.
The aftermath: Millions without power, hundreds of thousands without homes, thousands feared dead, billions of dollars in damage.