While the Federal Emergency Management Agency and local officials exchanged blame for a sluggish response, there were heroes at work, reports CBS News Correspondent Bob Orr.
One of those heroes is Coast Guard pilot Dan Taylor. In four days his chopper crew saved 50 people.
"Nothing prepared us for the scope of devastation down there," Cmdr. Taylor said. "In the New Orleans area, just about anywhere you looked, you saw people on rooftops that needed help — or people waving things out of windows that needed help."
Taylor relied on his own judgment in deciding who needed to be rescued first, rather than follow a chain-of-command sort of authority.
"There wasn't a single time while we were in the air when we had to ask permission to do anything," Taylor said.
That is why the Coast Guard succeeded. Unlike many other federal agencies, the Coast Guard was able to cut through bureaucratic red tape with a simple philosophy: Act first and get permission later.
Crews on the scene assessed the needs and risks of saving people in an urban danger zone. Joshua Rice was one of the Coast Guard rescue swimmers who saved people.
"It was definitely something that we don't train for," Rice said. "We can't go around and flood a neighborhood and train plucking people off houses. We're usually out in open water."
With no specialized training for the situation, and no specific orders from headquarters, the Coast Guard improvised.
"Basically, we'd freelance and pull as many as we could fit in a helicopter at a time," said Shane Sprague, a Coast Guard mechanic.
Former Coast Guard commander Stephen Flynn said FEMA and other agencies need to build on the Coast Guard's success.
"It can't be a reactive, give me a specific laundry list of what you need and we'll figure whether we've got it," said Flynn. "The most critical time in a disaster is in the first 48 to 72 hours and if you're not poised to help out you're not gonna be much good."
There were heroes in Katrina.
"We didn't lose a helicopter, we didn't lose anybody that we were hoisting, so I think it went well," said Rice.
"I think the Coast Guard knocked it out of the park," said Sprague.
The question is: Will they have more help the next time?