The images continue to haunt: storm surge from Hurricane Katrina pouring through gaps in failed flood walls, rapidly rising waters, desperate New Orleanians trapped on rooftops.
During one of U.S. history’s costliest and deadliest hurricanes and its aftermath, a colorful cast of characters was catapulted onto the national stage. Some were heralded for their bravery and leadership; others were derided for their incompetence.
Ten years on, certain names instantly evoke that natural disaster and the man-made tragedy that followed, the legacy of which lingers today in New Orleans and elsewhere along the Gulf Coast.
Among all of the people who gained national prominence in the wake of Katrina, the rise of Ray Nagin, New Orleans’ first-term mayor, was the most meteoric — and his fall, perhaps the most precipitous.
He became known for his impassioned and angry calls for help. On Sept. 1, 2005, during an on-air call to a New Orleans radio station, his frustration at the federal government boiled over:
“Don’t tell me 40,000 people are coming here. They’re not here. It’s too doggone late,” he said. “Now get off your asses and do something, and let’s fix the biggest goddamn crisis in the history of this country.”
Nagin won re-election in 2006, but never regained his popularity. Criticism over his leadership failures during Katrina continued, and the public grew frustrated with his frequent out-of-town trips. Controversial statements regarding race, the uneven pace of recovery, an uptick in crime and allegations of corruption in City Hall also dogged him.
After leaving office in 2010 — voters elected Mitch Landrieu, New Orleans’ first white mayor in 32 years — Nagin joined his family in Texas. In 2014, he was convicted on 20 charges — including fraud, bribery, money laundering and conspiracy — related to contractors seeking city work before and after Hurricane Katrina. In September 2014, Nagin started serving a 10-year sentence at a federal prison in Texarkana, Texas. His lawyers filed an appeal earlier this year.
Louisiana’s governor at the time, Kathleen Blanco, is the first and only woman ever to be elected to that office. Blanco’s preparations and response to both the hurricane and the flooding after the levee system failed were marked by communication failures with both Nagin and federal authorities.
Conflict between the Democratic governor and the White House came to a head over a push for Blanco to accept a federal takeover of the Louisiana National Guard, documents released later show. Blanco refused, and the White House stood down.
Against fierce opposition, Blanco insisted on rebuilding the Superdome — the shelter of last resort during Katrina — a decision that she and others later called a key decision in the recovery effort.
In 2007, the embattled governor — the subject of criticism for her slow response and lack of leadership during Katrina — announced she would not run for a second term as governor and later retired from politics.
Earlier this year, she was named a Louisiana Legend by the Friends of Louisiana Public Broadcasting for “securing $29 billion for Louisiana’s recovery effort, overcoming extraordinary early resistance.”
The struggle against the White House and in securing money from the Republican-controlled Congress to fund the recovery continued after the floodwaters receded.
In a recent interview, she recalled saying, half-seriously, at the end of her term: “If I had known how political this White House was going to be, I might have considered becoming a Republican just to lower the temperature so that I could get all that money (for rebuilding) up front.”
Criticism of the federal response to Katrina focused intensely on Michael D. Brown, undersecretary of the Department of Homeland Security and director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA. At the time, much was made of the fact that prior to FEMA, the college friend of George W. Bush’s campaign manager served for a decade as the commissioner of the International Arabian Horse Association.
Brown famously told CNN that the federal government was unaware that evacuees were stranded at the New Orleans convention center — much less how squalid the conditions were — until Sept. 1, 2005, three days after the storm made landfall.
A day later, President Bush toured the damage and praised Brown with words that would come to haunt both men:
Shortages in food, water and other supplies grew — along with perceptions of the federal government’s indifference, compounded by missteps, mishandling and miscommunication.
A week after Bush’s comments, Brown was relieved of his onsite duties in New Orleans and sent back to Washington, D.C. Three days later, he resigned.
Brown now hosts The Michael Brown Show on Denver talk radio station KHOW, which also airs shows hosted by Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck.
In 2011, Brown published a book about Katrina, Deadly Indifference, in which he slammed the Bush administration for making him the scapegoat for their failures to understand the scope and urgency of Katrina. In an essay for the 10th anniversary of Katrina, he argues once again that he was held responsible for things beyond his control.
And he continues to court controversy. In 2013, he drew criticism for a tweet during a power outage at the Super Bowl, being played in New Orleans’ Superdome:
During Katrina, the Superdome served as the shelter of last resort for tens of thousands of desperate New Orleans residents. The conditions quickly deteriorated: toilets overflowed, the air-conditioning failed, food and other supplies were in short supply. Reporters and evacuees alike described it as “hell” and “worse than prison.”
Michael Chertoff was head of Homeland Security, which oversees FEMA, and Michael Brown’s boss during Katrina.
On Sept. 1, 2005, he spoke with ATC’s Robert Siegel and echoed Michael Brown’s astonishing comment that he had “not heard a report of thousands of people in the convention center who don’t have food and water,” referring to the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, where evacuees were told to gather and wait for transportation. The same day, NPR’s John Burnett reported from the convention center that people were “living like animals” without food, water or medical treatment.
Chertoff defended FEMA Director Michael Brown — shortly before relieving him of his duties in New Orleans and sending him back to Washington, D.C. Along with Brown, Chertoff became a symbol of the government’s failure to recognize the severity of the situation and a general sense of indifference.
After leaving Homeland Security in 2009, he founded a global security consulting firm, Chertoff Group, and is on the board of several defense, IT and security firms, and he serves as chairman of the board for BAE Systems.
Thad Allen, then a vice admiral and the U.S. Coast Guard’s chief of staff, arrived in New Orleans on Sept. 5, 2005, to assist Michael Brown in leading federal recovery efforts. On Sept. 9, he took over those efforts from Brown. His calm and steady leadership, along with that of Army Lt. Gen. Russel Honore — who headed the unified military efforts — were widely praised.
After Katrina, Allen was named the 23rd Commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard, a post he held until he retired, as a full admiral, from the Coast Guard in 2010. That year, President Obama chose him to oversee federal recovery efforts after the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
Now, Allen is senior executive at Booz Allen and holds the Tyler Chair in Leadership at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy’s Institute for Leadership.
Together with Allen, Army Lt. Gen. Russel Honore, commander of the some 22,000 military personnel deployed to assist with disaster recovery, was among those few whose leadership garnered praise — most famously from Nagin, who referred to Honore as “one John Wayne dude … that can get some stuff done.”
Honore, a gruff, cigar-chomping, straight-talking Louisiana native, had a few memorable lines of his own. “Don’t get stuck on stupid, reporters. We are moving forward,” he told journalists at one news conference who asked him repeatedly about mistakes made during Katrina rather than preparation for incoming Hurricane Rita.
After Katrina, Honore returned to his post in Georgia as the Army’s top trainer of National Guard and Reservist troops for combat, and he retired from the military in 2008.
Honore had been discussed as a possible independent candidate for Louisiana governor, but decided not to run. Now, he works on emergency preparedness issues with Gallup and is a commentator on CNN.
Local law-and-order officials didn’t fare as well. New Orleans Police Superintendent Eddie Compass, a 26-year veteran of the force, was widely criticized for his failure to provide leadership — breaking down in public and repeating unsubstantiated reports of violence, looting and rapes in the wake of the storm.
In the meantime, true police brutality and corruption came to be represented by the shootings on the Danziger Bridge and the subsequent cover-up.
In a 2010 interview with PBS’ Frontline, Compass acknowledged that he made mistakes, but said he was working under intense pressure and difficult circumstances.
“I spread a lot rumors, but if I wouldn’t have gave the information that was given to me without being verified, then I would have been accused of covering things up. So it was a no-win situation,” he said.
Since 2007, Compass has been the executive director of security for New Orleans’ Recovery School District, which runs the city’s public schools.
“I think it is my destiny to be at this school and help these kids,” Compass told NPR’s Carrie Kahn in 2008.
Chris Rose was a columnist and reporter for The Times-Picayune when Katrina hit. His poignant essays were collected in the best-selling book, 1 Dead In Attic, a reference to the macabre code spray-painted onto damaged homes. His commentaries aired on NPR, including an account of his family’s decision to finally leave New Orleans ahead of Katrina. In 2006, he was a finalist for the Pulitzer in commentary and was part of the Times-Picayune team that won the prize for public service.
Like others who lived through Katrina, Rose’s life since has been a series of ups and downs: divorce, drug addiction, rehab, unemployment. He left The Times-Picayune in 2009, and wasn’t able to hold onto jobs at a local TV station and waiting tables.
These days, according to the Columbia Journalism Review, he is writing copy for a New Orleans grocery store. And on the 10th anniversary of Katrina, he published a new essay: “We’re Still New Orleans.”
The exodus after the storm sent tens of thousands of desperate evacuees to Houston’s Astrodome. Along with then-Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Houston Mayor Bill White received praise for the coordination and preparedness that welcomed those fleeing Katrina’s destruction.
“The civil-spirited can-doism of Perry, White and the entire city of Houston was a high watermark in the post Katrina miasma that had struck the Gulf South,” writes historian Douglas Brinkley, author of The Great Deluge.
In 2007, White received the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award for his service during Katrina and was named one of Governing magazine’s Public Officials of the Year. He went on to serve two more terms as mayor.
In the 2010 gubernatorial race, White, a Democrat, lost to the incumbent Perry, 42 percent to 55 percent. White returned to the private sector and is a senior adviser at Lazard, a global financial advisory and asset management firm. He recently published America’s Fiscal Constitution, a book that argues the case for limited use of federal debt financing.
Unlike his Louisiana counterpart, Mississippi’s Republican governor, Haley Barbour, earned praise for his leadership during Katrina. While much of the media focus was on Katrina damage in New Orleans, some of the worst destruction occurred along the Mississippi Gulf Coast.
After touring the hardest hit-areas shortly after the storm, an emotional Barbour told reporters the damage was indescribable, NPR’s David Schaper reported.
“The totality of the destruction, so many places where a home had been and there was nothing but a slab that looked like it had been swept with a broom. Just nothing. Nothing left,” he said.
In 2006, Governing magazine named him one of its Public Officials of the Year for his handling of Katrina. Later, during his second term, he was praised for his response to 2010’s BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
The Republican heavyweight with close ties to the White House was considered a potential presidential contender in 2012 before ultimately deciding not to run.
After his second term, Barbour returned to BGR Group, the lobbying firm he helped found, and authored a recent book about Katrina, America’s Great Storm.