Hurricane Katrina Refugees Stranded in Superdome

New Orleans, Louisiana, USA
August 23, 2005
Matthew Hill and Bradley Miller



New Orleans Super Dome underwater
New Orleans Super Dome underwater

“”It’s worse than a prison,” said Childs, who knew something about the subject, having spent three months in the Orleans Parish Prison on a drunken-driving charge. “In prison you have a place to urinate, a place for other bathroom needs. Here you get no water, no toilets, no lights. You get all that in prison.”” Without adequate shelter, the city of New Orleans was forced to convert their cherished Superdome into a makeshift emergency shelter for the thousands stranded in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.  The conditions inside the Superdome left the refugees living in sub-human conditions, with no access to clean water, electricity or plumbing.  Incredibly, the city of New Orleans had an overwhelming lack of adequate shelter, despite being located below sea level, in a place so prone to devastation.  The city’s emergency plan relied heavily on the protection of the levees surrounding the city, which systematically failed, flooding the majority of the city in the aftermath of the hurricane. The City of New Orleans has potential for architectural solutions that could help the city in the event of a future disaster. The lack of large-scale shelters could be addressed through the intended repurposing of existing buildings and the establishment of new buildings with mixed purposes, as both shelters and a variety of common building uses.

With the City of New Orleans lying on average one to two feet below sea level, the Levees and floodwalls are essential for the city to function. It was a well-known fact that if these systems holding back the water ever failed, it would bring chaos to the city, and yet these were the only measures being taken to protect the city and its inhabitants.

National Guard rushing displaced residents to the makeshift shelter at the Super Dome
National Guard rushing displaced residents to the makeshift shelter at the Super Dome

When Hurricane Katrina hit and the levees and floodwalls failed, between 66%-75% of the city was left underwater. The pump stations that were intended to drain the water from the city were soon overloaded and damaged by the storm causing them to fail allowing water to settle in a majority of the city. The amount of damage to the systems protecting the city was at such a large scale that it would take a great deal of time to repair them and drain the city, which simply perpetuated the problem at hand. When New Orleans eventually flooded, the inhabitants that were not able to able to get out were then trapped there with almost nowhere to go. With so much of the city underwater, staying in previous residencies was basically out of the question. It seemed that the storm had almost caught the city of guard due to its slow response times and poor coordination. There was very little set up to aid in the people that were now trapped in the city. The city was not New Orleans did not have any locations or structures set up as relief points for the inhabitants, so people were forced to find the highest local points they could and wait for help. The lack of shelter is one of the prominent reasons for the confusion and chaos that soon engulfed the City of New Orleans. At this point, the Superdome was converted into a make shift shelter for anyone who was able to reach it. It was on of the few places that had a predominantly large indoor space that was not flooded and had any chance of holding enough people. It was not the ideal solution the crisis, but it was the only solution at the time.

With the Superdomes primary function to hold people for a short period of time to view a sporting even, it did not cope well with being a long-term disaster relief shelter. The conditions in the Superdome were considered almost inhumane because of the lack of cleanliness and order. Most of the power was out in the state of Louisiana, which drastically affected the Superdome.

Horrible conditions inside the makeshift shelter at the Super Dome
Horrible conditions inside the makeshift shelter at the Super Dome

They were left without running water, air conditioning, and light. These were horrible conditions, especially considering how many people were packed inside the structure. There are accounts of people urinating and defecating on the floors, trash was not being disposed of properly, people were being raped, the conditions were killing people and even caused certain individuals to kill themselves. There were bodies of those who had passed after the storm littering the streets and some simply placed outside the Superdome because there was no other way to deal with the bodies. The emergency generator was barely able to keep some lights on, and almost completely failed when the generator room flooded and the gas reserve was submerged under a couple feet of water outside. There were no safety measures our counter precautions to keep things running in the Superdome. The Superdome had become less of a shelter and more of a prison forcing the people of New Orleans to stay.

Thousands of displaced residents seeking refuge at the Super Dome
Thousands of displaced residents seeking refuge at the Super Dome

There is great potential for architectural and other design oriented solutions for disaster relief in New Orleans. Through research it seams that there are very few large-scale shelters to protect from disasters on this scale. A majority of the solutions seem to be last minute mobile relief shelters that would be incapable of actually withstanding the direct impact of a natural disaster. While they are affective in bringing relief and shelter after a disaster, they do not help to prevent the problem in the fist place. These are very affective when an area is caught of guard and has to respond quickly to a problem, but it seems that the larger problem is simply not being addressed. With the construction of large super structures that would be able to withstand the extremes of nature and cope with the after affects, many of the problems that we were faced with during Hurricane Katrina could possibly be avoided.

A common theme in buildings in areas that encounter many dangerous natural occurrences is buildings that are designed with the intention to withstand such events, while still having a primary function during the remainder of the time. In the mid-west, many schools are designed to have safe places for the students to take shelter in during tornados. On the east coast where earthquakes are a fairly common occurrence, buildings are designed so they will not fall over during these events. This same design strategy could be utilized in New Orleans by designing new buildings to withstand and shelter victims for longer periods of time during disasters as a secondary purpose while still maintaining a primary function for the rest of the time. New Orleans as a site should not be treated like everywhere else in the country and should be planned with worst-case scenarios in mind so that the city can still function even during and after disasters.

New Orleans is one of many locations around the world in an area constantly threatened by natural disasters, yet it still suffers greatly due to a lack of precautionary measures. A large proportion of the chaos and devastation from these disasters could be averted if permanent structures designed to cope with such problems were designed and implemented in the area. With a large portion of the problem of natural disasters being the long after affect, it would be ideal to plan for those times and create things to lessen the severity of them. If New Orleans outfitted or designed larger buildings with the necessities to survive disasters, many of the problems that arose during the hurricane could be avoided. New Orleans could use the same techniques that the mid west and west coast use, and implement them in a way to best fit the unique environmental conditions that the area is known to encounter. This could be a one potential solution for the possibility of a future disaster.






Inside the Super Dome. Michael Appleton.


Thousands of displaced residents seek shelter inside the Super Dome. AP/Eric Gay.


National Guard bringing displaced residents to the makeshift shelter at the Super Dome. AP/Eric Gay.


Rising water at the Super Dome.






    • This article goes over what it was like using the Superdome as a shelter from Hurricane Katrina. It covers the conditions that the people were forced to deal with due to the overcrowding of a structure not meant to be used as a disaster shelter. There are direct accounts of many of the victims telling their experiences at the Superdome. The article helps the reader to understand what it would have been like to bet there during the disaster.
      • “Superdome is seething scene of last resort.” New York Times, 09 02, 2005. (accessed September 8, 2013).
    • Talks about the negative aspects of using the Superdome as a refuge, compares life inside of the Super Dome to life in a “concentration camp”.  Blog-like article about the living conditions inside the dome.  It is another good source of information for what went wrong with regards to using the dome as an emergency shelter.
      • Presse, Agence. Common Dreams, “Stadium Hurricane Refuge Like a ‘Concentration Camp’.” Last modified 09 02, 2005. Accessed September 8, 2013.
    • Talks about how the plan of the Emergency Evacuators was to continue bringing survivors to the Superdome despite there already being over 15,000 already taking refuge inside the dome.  Overall news report of the conditions following Hurricane Katrina, nothing too specific.
      • Associated Press, “Governor: Evac Superdome, Rescue Centers.” Last modified 08 30, 2005. Accessed September 8, 2013.,2933,167653,00.html.
    • Talks about the horrible living conditions inside the Superdome, explaining how people were forced to urinate on the floors of the dome and how due to poor lighting and security people were raped as the dome darkened at night.  The author explains using actual people’s testimonies how horrible the living conditions were inside of the dome.
      • Gold, Scott. “Trapped in the Superdome: Refuge becomes a hellhole.” The Seattle Times, 09 01, 2005. (accessed September 8, 2013).
        • Thornton, Doug. “Shelter from the storm: Doug Thornton reflects on the Superdome in Katrina.” The Times-Picayune, 01 29, 2013. (accessed September 8, 2013).


Orthographic Documentation


    •  The City of New Orleans Master Plan, Volume III, Chapter VI, Neighborhoods and Housing
    • Gives in depth analysis of the region through the use of maps and charts. Shows which areas were most affected by the floods, which areas have recovered and which areas are still in poor shape. The article looks into the “pockets of blight” that have since increased after the storm and solutions to reinvent the city.
      • The City of New Orleans, “Neighborhoods and Housing.” Last modified 2010. Accessed September 8, 2013.


Web Sites:


    • A company that deploys boxes to areas where shelter is needed.  The boxes contain a tent-like structure that shelters an “extended family” and also house “life saving materials” that are specially chosen depending on the situation.  The website provides information about the product and where it has been used before.  This is a good source of information for an emergency shelter design that is successful.
      • Shelterbox, “Shelterbox USA: About Us.” Last modified 01 01, 2013. Accessed September 8, 2013.


Scholarly Articles:


  • Disaster Planning and Risk Communication With Vulnerable Communities: Lessons From Hurricane Katrina – PDF
    • Report about the evacuation choices made by the poor and minority communities affected by Hurricane Katrina to try and understand why these groups of people are disproportionately affected by natural disaster.  The study surveys a random selection of 58 people that resided in the refugee areas in Houston, Texas following Hurricane Katrina.  Good source for finding information about the evacuation tendencies of the poor and minority communities affected by natural disaster.
      • Eisenman, David P,M.D., M.S.H.S., Cordasco, Kristina M,M.D., M.P.H., Asch, Steve,M.D., M.S.H.S., Joya F.
        Golden  B.A., and Deborah Glik  ScD. “Disaster Planning and Risk Communication with Vulnerable
        Communities: Lessons from Hurricane Katrina.” American Journal of Public Health 97, (2007): S109-15.


  • Shelter Life After Hurricane Katrina: A Visual Analysis of Evacuee Perspectives – PDF
    • Report that follows 9 survivors of Hurricane Katrina and their respective living conditions in Red Cross shelters in the days and months following Hurricane Katrina.  Provides statistics about how many people actually go to emergency shelters in the wake of a natural disaster.  Good source of information about the living conditions inside conventional emergency shelters.
      • Pike, Lynn, Brenda Phillips, and Patsilu Reeves. “Shelter Life After Hurricane Katrina: A Visual Analysis of Evacuee Perspectives.” International Journal of Mass Emergencies and Disasters. no. No.3 (2006): 303-330.


Video and Audio


“Superdome During Katrina.” 2013. The History Channel website. Sep 8 2013

Encyclopedia Entry:


    • The Encyclopedia of Louisiana goes overs the lead up to the storm, the damage the storm caused and the after effects of the storm. The source goes over why the City of New Orleans was not ready and unable to properly deal with a disaster at this scale. The flaws of the Superdome as a refuge were pointed out and the extent of time it took for the country to handle the situation.
  • Heitman, Danny. “Hurricane Katrina.” In KnowLA Encyclopedia of Louisiana, edited by David Johnson. Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities, 2010–. Article published May 31, 2011.

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