Hurricane Katrina/Book Review

The Great Deluge, Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans and The Mississippi Gulf Coast, by Douglas Brinkley? Published by William Morrow

This is a long book; 716 pages?over 250, 000 words. Actually, to be precise, 254,839 words?not counting notes and bibliography.
I hear you all asking (and you might try raising your hands for once, instead of shouting out all at once). How is it, Mike, that you know exactly how many words there are in this book? I mean, give me a break, did you really count them? In fact I did?or, rather, my word counter on the computer did. And the reason for that is because I abridged this book for the publisher. I shortened it to 56,000 words to be recorded and put on 6 CD?s.
As is generally the case, they sent me the manuscript about six weeks before publication and I abridged it so it could be issued in conjunction with the release of the book itself.
So, in fact, I read every word of this book?and cut out about 80% of it for the final recorded version. How could I do that and still have the abridgement bear any resemblance to the original manuscript? Excellent question, but that?s what they pay me for. And since the abridgement was approved without a correction, I guess I did a good enough job?
Enough about me?on to the book?

The Great Deluge covers one week in the history of this horrible disaster?from Friday, August 27th?when all the warnings of impending doom had been made clear to everyone?to Saturday, September 3rd, when the city was almost completely under control again and effectively evacuated.
The author, Douglas Brinkley, is the head of the American Studies Department (used to be called American History when I was but a youth) at Tulane University. And, more importantly, Brinkley lives, along with his family, in New Orleans?which, aside from whatever his usual temperament might be, accounts for the passion, sympathy and anger with which this book is written.

The narrative swings back and forth between individual stories?of suffering, endurance and heroism?and the larger sweep of politics and bureaucracy, reaching up to and including George Bush. Bush, at the best of times a poor excuse for a human being, but when his country and fellow citizens really need him a grossly insensitive fool and a galloping coward to boot.
When you read this book you will see that Bush?s behavior, during the week of New Orleans? greatest need, was typical of him. He ignored expert advice, hesitated to take action, then did as many wrong things as it was possible to do. He trusted to his underlings?almost always hack political appointees or Cheney or Rove?s picks to run the government the way they want regardless of the what people actually need.) These underlings also made every wrong choice?based, much like the Idiot-In-Chief, on their own astounding insensitivity to people?s real needs and their fear of offending their political betters. I?m referring here to Michael Brown, who in the midst of the murderous incompetence he displayed got nothing but praise from clown who appointed him: ?Brownie?s doin a heck of a job.?

Aside from Bush and one other person I will mention in a bit, the author reserves his strongest contempt and disdain for Michael Chertoff, the director of Homeland Security. Chertoff ignored New Orleans and the rest of the Gulf Coast at its moment of greatest need and refused until it was almost too late, to give the necessary order that would bring relief to the areas hardest hit by the storm. Chertoff comes off, as I have no doubt he is in fact, as a cold, unfeeling bureaucrat who keeps as far away from other human beings and their suffering as possible.
Michael Brown gets a bit of a break in this book. His incompetence, as described in great detail in the book, is, by now, legend?but he did try as hard as its possible for a bureaucrat and a toady to try?to communicate the dire need the Gulf Coast was in to Bush and Chertoff?only to be ignored until the worst had happened, until New Orleans was almost drowned and 1,500 people had died.
FEMA, under Brown, did everything wrong and Bush showed his initial compassion by flying over the scene of the horror in Air Force One— causing the author?Brinkley?to wonder (I?m paraphrasing here): ?Could the President hear the screams of people drowning and the smells of moldering bodies and burning fuel dumps from his Presidential lounge thousands of feet up in the sky??

The local medal-winner for incompetence and what some people might call negligent homicide was the very recently (May 20th)

re-elected Mayor of New Orleans, Ray Nagin. Nagin is a black man who was always in bed with Big Business and gave very little real consideration to the lives and well-being of the hundreds of thousands of poor blacks in his own city?either before or during the storm and subsequent flooding. That Nagin was just re-elected over a man ( a white man, Lt. Governor Mitch Landrieu) who displayed actual personal bravery and did his job during the worst of storm is very sad. Nagin played every race card he could during the last few months, and it worked.
In re-electing Nagin, who Douglas Brinkley portrays in great detail as incompetent, cowardly, and possibly mentally unstable during the time of great emergency and need, is baffling to me. Just because he?s black?is that all it takes? The next hurricane is no more than a couple of months away and Nagin is the man who got everything wrong the last time. Why would anyone expect him to do any better the next time around?
On the other side of the ledger, Nagin did get a small number of white votes and New Orleans had a long of white mayors (one of whom was Mitch Landreiu?s father) who never did much for blacks at all?so its (American) politics as usual.
In fact, when it comes to race and politics, New Orleans, as Brinkley describes is like the ultimate laboratory for failure of government to do anything for a minority or underprivileged group of people.

Brinkley gives us a good history of the founding of the City of New Orleans, which was originally French territory. Even at its beginning, New Orleans was almost below sea level. The city, over the couple of hundred years since its founding, was battered and flooded several times by storms and hurricanes, and, as the centuries wore on, wound up with the majority of its land actually below sea level, with the levee system its only protection.
New Orleans could have founded fifty or more miles back from the coast?near Baton Rouge, but?and I know you?ll find this hard to believe.. It wasn?t as good for COMMERCE?shipping. So, since New Orleans made a better and more ready port, despite its precarious natural position, that?s where the city was built.

In the twentieth century it was still the shipping industry that got all sorts of canals to be dug for its own benefit and, along with the needs of the oil drilling interests, continued to destroy whatever remaining natural protection the city had against wind and water. And, because of man-made decisions, the vast wetlands on the coast, which also provided a great deal of natural protection for the city, were destroyed (and continue to be destroyed) at an astounding rate.

The book isn?t all criticism or outrage?that?s as much my feeling when I read it as the intention of the author. As I mentioned earlier, there a great many stories of altruism and heroism?both by individuals and by local authorities who ignored or split off from the larger bureaucracies and just did their jobs; especially the US Coast Guard (the famous scenes of helicopter rescues were of the Coast Guard doing their jobs while organizations like FEMA, The National Guard, The Red Cross, The New Orleans Police Department, etc. were, for various reasons, missing in action.) The Louisiana Fish and Wildlife people also performed tremendous acts of heroism.
There are tragic, and, again, inspiring stories of endurance and bravery on the part of average, every day types, graphically portrayed by the author.

In the end, thousands of people?s lives were saved by common New Orleanians and local authorities in many Gulf Coast towns and cities?who declined to wait for the Governor or The President or FEMA to act. They took matters into their own hands and thank God they did.

Brinkley also praises the media?both print, radio and television for sticking to their posts and giving people a vivid picture of what was going on. In not a few instances, the reporters too were involved in helping to rescue the poor and aged from what was otherwise certain death.
According to Brinkley, the film and print reporting done during Katrina was the media functioning at its highest level of professionalism and moral courage. It was there that even a CNN personality, Anderson Cooper, finally discovered that its alright to yell at a politician. Imagine that?someone in the mainstream media actually holding government to account despite the risk of losing a million dollar a year job!

The author also tackles one of the root issues of the disaster of Katrina as it applied to New Orleans?racism, as laid completely bare for all the world to see. It was racism that was as much responsible for the death and destruction as much as the storm?s natural consequences.
The scenes in the poorer parishes of the city, the hellish conditions at the Superdome and The Convention center, the horrors at various city hospitals and nursing homes; the looters, the pitiful and shameful behavior of the New Orleans police department?all of this is told with no punches pulled in the telling.

The book, though long, is a vivid read, full of necessary details, day by day, even hour by hour. It is dramatically written and gives historical background on every political and geographical structure in a way that makes it compelling at all times. Brinkley?s conclusion is that what happened to New Orleans was, in the end, as much or more a man-made disaster as a natural one.
I can?t imagine a better book for anyone who wanted to know, (as much as it would possible to know?not being on the spot) what it was like that awful week down in New Orleans and the surrounding areas of the Mississippi Gulf Coast. And also to know what it was like behind the scenes as the various levels of ?public servants,? city, state and national?failed to prevent a disaster and came to the rescue far too late.

I just heard on the radio that The National Weather Service is predicting at least a dozen possible major storms starting in June…
You can only wonder what will become of New Orleans if it gets hit even by a mid-level storm. As Brinkley says in his book–and, again, he lives there with his family–a city with such a long and rich history as New Orleans isn’t something you just abandon and leave to rot… Yet what would it take to reestablish as much of the city’s essence on something resembling higher ground? Maybe its impossible. Maybe New Orleans will persist in being New Orleans, just where it is now. Somewhere I read that one day New Orleans might one day be considered the Atlantis of the Gulf Coast. Poetic but sad beyond words.
Good luck to them….

– Mike Feder (New York City – May 22, 2006)

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