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Learning From Katrina

Hurricane Katrina can teach engineers a lot about the unintended impact of technology as well as what can be done to prepare for the next catastrophe

2 min read

Hurricane Katrina was one of the culminating chapters in long story of not-so-natural natural disasters in American history. An escalating cycle of expanding flood control, coastal development, and lagging environmental management led Hurricane Katrina to grow from a natural disaster with temporary destructive effects on the Gulf Coast ecosystem to a massive tragedy that displaced hundreds of thousands of people, caused billions of dollars in economic loss, and damaged an ecosystem beyond repair.

More than two years later, many residents are still not able to host a holiday dinner for their families.

More than two years later, suicide rates, domestic violence, and crime continue to rise.

More than two years later, temporary housing is still in place, much of it chemically unsafe.

More than two years later, the coastal wetlands continue to deteriorate, increasing the looming tragedy from the next not-so-natural natural disaster.

More than two years later, the environment breathes health threats of almost every kind on local residents and volunteers alike.

More than two years later, it remains the responsibility of engineers to examine carefully how technology has not only helped society but has also weakened people's ability to survive in its absence.

This series of stories and videos focuses on the lessons learned from Hurricane Katrina from an engineer's perspective. The unintended impact of technology on those who use it belongs as much on the radar screen of the engineer as any design specification, test protocol, or market research. See the video Intro: Learning from Katrina

Coming Soon:

January: Flood or Hurricane Protection: The Levees of New Orleans

February: Learning From Katrina: Pearlington, Miss., Struggles to Rebuild

March: After Natural Disaster: Do We Do Too Much Search for Every Rescue?

April: The Collapse and Lightning-Fast Recovery of the Power Grid

May: Katrina in Comparison: The Next Series of Floods

Click here for video credits.

About the Authors

Denise Wilson, an associate professor of electrical engineering at the University of Washington in Seattle, completed her first stint as a Hurricane Katrina relief volunteer in November 2005 in Mississippi, where she spent a week gutting devastated homes. Since then, she has returned in two additional service trips and in full-quarter and miniquarter service-learning programs with University of Washington students (in the winter and summer of 2007). She has also played a role in testing, interpreting, and reporting the exposures and environmental health consequences played out by Hurricane Katrina. Wilson received a B.S. degree in mechanical engineering from Stanford University in 1988 and M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in electrical engineering from Stanford and the Georgia Institute of Technology in 1989 and 1995, respectively.

Ella Kliger was born in Boston. She received a B.A. degree in communications from Tulane University in New Orleans in 1991. She is currently working as an independent filmmaker. Her recent documentary, The Kindness of Strangers: Katrina Connections, is in the final stages of postproduction. Her documentary focuses on the dynamic stories of the connections forged between volunteers and residents in the post-Katrina environment along the Mississippi Gulf Coast. For more than a year, she has been engaged in the post-Katrina recovery effort with a variety of disaster relief organizations. Her Web site,, tells the stories of communities that are committed to rebuilding from the most devastating natural disaster in U.S. history.

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