Today in History

Today in History: August 29

Hurricane Katrina

“And you remember, uh, even after we couldn’t pump no more.  I thought I was dreamin’ for awhile.  I thought I saw bodies—dead bodies—in—in the water—”
“—and floatin’.”
“I don’t b’lieve that was no dream.  And you know what?  It’s gon’ linger with us, it’s gon’ be with us, until the rest of my life i' gone, y’know, it gonna linger, it gonna be there with me.”

Rufus Burkhalter and Bobby Brown,
New Orleans Pump Station operators, in conversation remembering Hurricane Katrina.
Audio recording by StoryCorps, archived at the American Folklife Center, Library of Congress

map of the path of Hurricane Katrina
Path of Hurricane Katrina into the Gulf Coast region of the United States,
August 2005,
Image index map,
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

At approximately 6:10 a.m., Central Daylight Time, on August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina, a Category 4 storm packing winds of 145 m.p.h., made landfall out of the Gulf of Mexico near Buras, Louisiana, and headed north towards the historic city of New Orleans, Louisiana, and the state of Mississippi. At 8:14 a.m., the New Orleans office of the National Weather Service issued a flood warning stating that the city’s Industrial Canal levee had been breached. Within an hour, the neighborhood known as the Lower Ninth Ward was under six-to-eight feet of water. By then the 17th Street Canal levee had failed as well, and the waters began to rise relentlessly throughout the city. Other levees and floodwalls failed also. By the next day, eighty percent of New Orleans lay underwater, in some areas to a height of twenty feet.  And Katrina had moved on, still bearing winds of 120 m.p.h., to wreak havoc across the central Gulf Coast of the United States.

map of the city of New Orleans
The city of New Orleans, and the Mississippi River: Lake Pontchartrain in distance,
Lithograph by Currier & Ives, c1885.
Map Collections

Placed between a great river and a lake, New Orleans had fought hurricanes and flooding since its founding in 1717. Only two years later, a hurricane all but destroyed it (PDF, 1.8 MB). Yet New Orleans survived, as it had survived wars and changes of empire, to become a great and beautiful city, justly famed for its extraordinary braiding of cultures, the architecture of its romantic French Quarter and its humble shotgun houses, its distinctive creole cuisine, and perhaps most of all, its importance as the birthplace of jazz

Exterior of a house in New Orleans
Fouche House, 619 Bourbon Street [French Quarter], New Orleans, Orleans Parish, La.,
Photograph, 1964.
Built in America: Historic American Buildings Survey/Historic American Engineering Record, 1933-Present

Exterior of a house in New Orleans
Rouselle House [a double shotgun house], 2012-2014 Louisiana Avenue, New Orleans, Orleans Parish, La.,
Photograph, 1991.
Built in America: Historic American Buildings Survey/Historic American Engineering Record, 1933-Present

Hurricanes (called typhoons in the Pacific) have always been part of life and lore in what is now the southern and eastern United States. A French visitor described one in the vicinity of New Orleans early in September 1722:

Towards ten o'clock in the evening there sprang up the most terrible hurricane which has been seen in these quarters. At New Orleans thirty-four houses were destroyed as well as the sheds, including the church, the parsonage and the hospital. In the hospital were some people sick with wounds. All the other houses were damaged about the roofs or the walls.

It is to be remarked that if the Mississipy had been high this hurricane [an earlier storm] would have put both banks of the river more than 15 feet under water, the Mississipy, although low, having risen 8 feet.

Diron D’Artaguiette, “Journal,” in Travels in the American Colonies,
ed. under the auspices of the National Society of the Colonial Dames of America by Newton D. Mereness (New York: Macmillan, 1916), 24.
American Notes: Travels in America, 1750-1920

On September 21, 1938, a Category 3 hurricane nicknamed “the Long Island Express” hit New England. Some 600 people died, and property damage was extensive. One witness described the scene in his Massachusetts community:

By Chrismus! Wasn't that hurricane a lulu? I was settin here readin when I noticed it was gettin so damn dark. I couldn't see…   I looked out the winder and saw our big tree going over as easy as you please — not all at once, but little by little. I watched it down and said that I bet the one in front wouldn't go for that was stronger. Then I saw one of our garage doors spinning by the winder and right across the street on to Doctor Brown's lawn. Somehow it got going on its edge like one of them straw hats we used to wear, and it was certainly making time.

Robert Wilder, [Pulling Teeth and Hurricanes], 4-5.
American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940

Exterior of a house with hurricane damage
New England hurricane. House in Amherst, Massachusetts,
Photograph, 1938.
America from the Great Depression to World War II: Black-and-White Photographs from the FSA-OWI, 1935-1945

On September 8, 1900, long before adequate meteorological warning systems had been developed, a devastating hurricane hit Galveston, Texas, and left much of it in ruins. In the storm and flooding that followed, more than 8,000 people died, the highest death toll in U.S. history for a natural disaster.

Frames from a film taken after the Galveston hurricane.
Searching ruins on Broadway, Galveston, for dead bodies,
Motion picture, 1900.
Inventing Entertainment: The Motion Pictures and Sound Recordings of the Edison Companies

Katrina, for all its horrors, cost less in life than the Galveston catastrophe, though television and other mass media allowed the nation and the world to witness the storm and its aftermath as they unfolded. More than 1,600 people died, a majority in Louisiana; more than 1.5 million people were scattered from their homes, many never to return; cities and towns, familiar landscapes and historic landmarks, lay smashed in Katrina’s wake; and the scar that this hurricane left on the American psyche was ineradicable. 

A house partially obscured by trees.
Beauvoir, home of Jefferson Davis, near Biloxi, Miss.,
Photograph, 1901.
Touring Turn-of-the-Century America: Photographs from the Detroit Publishing Company, 1880-1920
Katrina all but destroyed this historic home of the president of the Confederacy.

A house with a screened porch, near water.
Orpheum Street #1, Bucktown, 2004,
John Woodin, photographer,
Photograph, 2004.
Prints & Photographs Online Catalog
A New Orleans-area house before Katrina.

A tree and handrail near water.
Orpheum Street #1, Bucktown, 2005,
John Woodin, photographer,
Photograph, 2005.
Prints & Photographs Online Catalog
The same site after Katrina.

Yet there were small miracles. Many of New Orleans’s iconic buildings, often because they were in the wealthier neighborhoods on higher ground, were nearly untouched, and other treasures, such as the grand old oak trees of Government Street in Mobile, Alabama, or Biloxi, Mississippi’s, beloved 1848 lighthouse, were amazingly spared. And in New Orleans and throughout the Gulf, in spite of all they had suffered, Americans returned and began to build again.

A tree-lined street and a house in Mobile Alabama.
Government St., Mobile, Ala.,
Photograph, c1906.
Touring Turn-of-the-Century America: Photographs from the Detroit Publishing Company, 1880-1920

A lighthouse near the water.
The Biloxi light, Biloxi, Miss.,
Photograph, c1901.
Touring Turn-of-the-Century America: Photographs from the Detroit Publishing Company, 1880-1920

Life on the Farm

heifers grazing
Farming Scenes. Cows Grazing,
Theodor Horydczak, photographer,
circa 1920-50.
Washington as It Was: Photographs by Theodor Horydczak, 1923-1959

By four o'clock in the morning, lights flicker through the windows of the Graham farmhouse. Sarah Graham calls to Dale, "Wake up, son, it's time to begin milking." Young Dale groans and turns over, but less than a half hour later his boots can be heard, tramp, tramp, on the stair. Frances, his slender, bright-haired, younger sister follows with a lighter tread. She has slipped on slacks and sweater, and puts on a fresh, white apron as she goes. Their flashlights illuminate the side grass plot and the red clay of the upward-sloping [road?]. [Out?] of the blackness emerges the stout figure of Ben, the hired helper. Doors and windows of the cattle stalls and of the bottling and refrigerating rooms show bright against the darkness. Cows stir and low sleepily as Ben washes their well-filled bags. There is the swish of milk in pails, the click and gurgle of bottles being filled. Down the hill, smoke rises from the kitchen flue, as the sky gradually brightens. The work of the day has well begun.

"Human Kindness," in American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936-1940

Although descriptive not only of August 29, this 1939 interview "Human Kindness," by author Anne Stevens, recorded a typical day at the Graham dairy farm in Georgetown, North Carolina. After bottling the milk of their 23 cows, Dale Graham will load his truck and head into town by 7:00 a.m. to deliver fresh milk door-to-door. Meanwhile, his mother and sister will "put the house in order" and Ben will put the cows to pasture and repair fences, paint the barns, or do whatever chores call for attention.

A refrigerator with milk cans.
Mrs. Richard M. Tobin, Woodside Acres, Residence in Syosset, Long Island. Refrigerator.
Gottscho-Schleisner, Inc., photographer.
Architecture and Interior Design for 20th Century America: Photographs by Samuel Gottscho and William Schleisner, 1935-1955

Dale will return in time for the 4:30 p.m. milking, sterilization of bottles, bottling, and refrigeration. It's a long day. "Some mornings I oversleep," Mrs. Graham admits. "Why, yesterday I didn't wake up until four-thirty in the morning." She had gone to bed at seven o'clock the evening before.

While cows still demand twice-daily milkings, many farmers use mechanized milking machines that attach to the cows' udders and, through a system of pipes, deposit the milk into an on-site storage vat. Rather than delivering cans or bottles door-to-door, farmers also sold their milk to wholesalers who pasteurized and packaged the milk before selling it to grocery stores and other venues. Farmers milking both a few head of cows or large herds of more than 100 cows continued to mechanize to ease the physical labor of farming.

A refrigerator with milk cans.
Mrs. Richard M. Tobin, Woodside Acres, Residence in Syosset, Long Island. Pasturizer.
Gottscho-Schleisner, Inc., photographer.
Architecture and Interior Design for 20th Century America: Photographs by Samuel Gottscho and William Schleisner, 1935-1955

Farming changed dramatically in the years after the Graham family described their life in 1939. Major food production in the United States moved from mainly family farms to large agribusness operations totally unknown during this period. However, the life stories of the American farm family and the cultural mileau are not forgotten in the shift toward mechanization. These recollections and memories offer a unique perspective on rural and small town life that formed the basis for American society; without the collecting efforts of the Federal Writers' Project, such information would have been lost.