The Environmental Impacts of Hurricane Katrina

Refugees in boat during cleanup during hurricane Katrina's Aftermath.

Mario Tama / Getty Images

Perhaps the longest-lasting impact of Hurricane Katrina was its environmental damage that impacted public health. Significant amounts of industrial waste and raw sewage spilled directly into New Orleans neighborhoods, and oil spills from offshore rigs, coastal refineries, and even corner gas stations also made their way into residential areas and business districts throughout the region.

Contaminated Floodwater

Analysts estimate that 7 million gallons of oil spilled throughout the region. The U.S. Coast Guard says much of the spilled oil has been cleaned up or “naturally dispersed,” but environmentalists fear the initial contamination could devastate the region’s biodiversity and ecological health for many years to come, further devastating the region’s already ailing fisheries, contributing to an economic disaster.

Superfund Sites Flooded

Meanwhile, flooding at five “Superfund” sites (heavily polluted industrial sites slated for federal cleanup), and the wholesale destruction along the already infamous “Cancer Alley” industrial corridor between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, have only served to complicate matters for clean-up officials. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) considers Hurricane Katrina the biggest disaster it has ever had to handle.

Contaminated Groundwater

Household hazardous wastes, pesticides, heavy metals, and other toxic chemicals also created a witch’s brew of floodwater that quickly seeped into and contaminated groundwater across hundreds of miles. “The range of toxic chemicals that may have been released is extensive,” Johns Hopkins University environmental health sciences professor Lynn Goldman told USA Today in 2005. “We’re talking about metals, persistent chemicals, solvents, materials that have numerous potential health impacts over the long term.”

Hurricane Katrina: Environmental Regulations Not Enforced

According to Hugh Kaufman, an EPA senior policy analyst, environmental regulations in place to prevent the types of discharges that occurred during Hurricane Katrina were not enforced, making what would have been a bad situation much worse. Unchecked development throughout ecologically sensitive parts of the region put further stress on the environment’s ability to absorb and disperse noxious chemicals. “Folks down there were living on borrowed time and, unfortunately, time ran out with Katrina,” Kaufman concludes.

As Hurricane Katrina Cleanup Continues, Region Braces for Next Wave

Recovery efforts first focused on plugging leaks in levies, clearing debris and repairing water and sewer systems. Officials cannot say when they will be able to concentrate on longer-term issues such as treating contaminated soil and groundwater, though the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has been deploying Herculean efforts to physically remove tons of contaminated sediment left behind by receding floodwaters. 

Ten years later, massive restoration efforts are underway to reinforce the coast's natural defenses against large storms. Yet every spring, residents living near the Gulf Coast keep a wary eye on the forecast, knowing that a new, freshly brewed storm might bear down. With hurricane seasons potentially influenced by increasing ocean temperatures due to global warming, it should not be long before the new coastal restoration projects are tested.

Edited by Frederic Beaudry

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Your Citation
West, Larry. "The Environmental Impacts of Hurricane Katrina." ThoughtCo, Dec. 6, 2021, West, Larry. (2021, December 6). The Environmental Impacts of Hurricane Katrina. Retrieved from West, Larry. "The Environmental Impacts of Hurricane Katrina." ThoughtCo. (accessed January 31, 2023).