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Silent Witness | The Nation

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Silent Witness

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Mark your calendar. August 29, two years ago, Hurricane Katrina slammed into New Orleans. The howling wind shattered trees, moss-shrouded oaks that had shaded grateful pedestrians across centuries; it whipped roofs from shotgun houses, Creole cottages and antebellum mansions constructed by slaves brought to the city in chains; and it scattered people across the continent, whole families whose ancestors settled New Orleans before the United States became a nation. Then the water rose, an inundation caused by the storm's voracious tidal surge, the loss of thousands of acres of coastal wetlands sacrificed upon the altar of commercial gain, and levees built on the cheap and poorly maintained. The flood scoured away whole neighborhoods, leaving behind potters' fields.

About the Author

Ari Kelman
Ari Kelman, author of A River and Its City: The Nature of Landscape in New Orleans, teaches history at the University...

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No names of the dead will be engraved on walls; there will be no Freedom Tower. Instead, those responsible for this unnatural disaster hope that we will forget the storm's victims and survivors. For politicians, petroleum executives and engineers, there is little to be gained from our remembering Katrina--no wars to be ginned up out of this ruined city, no elections to be won by waving the stained garments of the dead. Meanwhile, New Orleanians are still on hold with insurance companies, busy hauling away moldy sheetrock or otherwise too consumed with sorting heirlooms encrusted with muck to scold us for ignoring them. What we have are scholars, memoirists, journalists and activists recalling the storm and foreshadowing what we'll miss if we continue on our path of forgetting. Their books, for now, are the best memorials to Katrina we have.

Douglas Brinkley's The Great Deluge, Jed Horne's Breach of Faith and Christopher Cooper and Robert Block's Disaster reject the Bush Administration's hollow plea not to play the "blame game." All three share subject matter--the run-up to the storm, the chaos after the levees failed and then, to varying degrees, the start of rebuilding--as well as a perspective of third-person omniscience. This point of view allows them to collapse time and space, surveying a panorama that includes Washington, Houston, parts of the Gulf Coast and New Orleans. But despite all they share, the three books differ on a critical question: how to apportion blame to characters ranging from the merely incompetent to the criminally negligent.

Take Brinkley's Great Deluge, a fine-grained account of the week surrounding Katrina. A historian at Tulane University, Brinkley crams huge quantities of riveting material into 700 pages. But working as a participant-observer, he's too close to the action. What results is less a work of "history," as promised, than a small archive--a trove of information and anecdotes--packaged as a disaster narrative, kin to David McCullough's Johnstown Flood or John Barry's Rising Tide. Brinkley, writing with fetid water still covering much of New Orleans, had to grasp for heroes where he could find them, usually in stories of regular people coping with the catastrophe. And he often resorts to cliche. Laura Maloney, an activist who saved hundreds of animals from the storm, "could have been a fashion model, with her long blond hair, perfect white teeth, and eyes that implied an internal kindness." Still, most of these portraits, particularly the case of New Orleans disc jockey Garland Robinette, who never stopped broadcasting as he rode out the storm, command attention and flesh out the disaster. And on the particulars of the events Brinkley covers, his book should be the definitive account for years to come.

What's most questionable is his argument that New Orleans's embattled mayor, Ray Nagin, deserves the lion's share of blame. For Brinkley, Nagin failed in ways too vast and various to be forgiven: to provision the Superdome, to evacuate the needy, to coordinate rescue and relief. Many familiar horror stories-- New Orleanians trapped on rooftops, starving in fetid shelters or dying for want of medicine--are punctuated in The Great Deluge with images of a callous Nagin. Rather than ordering an early mandatory evacuation, the mayor dithers as the storm approaches. With the water rising, he hides out at the Hyatt, ignoring havoc down the street at the Superdome. He later takes a luxurious shower aboard Air Force One, oblivious to a stream of displaced New Orleanians sweltering just minutes away.

On most counts, Brinkley's case has merit. But with drumbeat repetition, fair criticism becomes vendetta. It doesn't help that some passages flirt with racially coded language. Nagin is an Uncle Tom ("always deferential to whites"), a trickster ("spew[ing] anti- corruption jive"), all flash and no substance (a "show horse and not a nuts-and-bolts workhorse"), and he preens when he could be saving lives ("like a primping teenager"). The Great Deluge appeared on the eve of New Orleans's 2006 mayoral election, and it reads like campaign literature for the other side. But if that was the book's intent, it failed. Nagin won a second term.

Brinkley does catalogue the Bush Administration's ensemble cast of villains and buffoons. But his Nagin fixation and tendency to parrot Republican talking points--readers are asked, for example, to muster sympathy for Trent Lott, champion of tort reform, as he sues his insurance company for a payout on his Gulf Coast home--keep attention too tightly focused on local political figures. Horne's Breach of Faith, by contrast, feints at local and state politicians before focusing on federal officials: Congressional appropriators, enthralled by visions of small government; technocrats at the Army Corps of Engineers, as incapable of building stout structures as they are of telling the truth; Cabinet-level cronies, including Homeland Security secretary Michael Chertoff; and President Bush himself.

For Horne, an editor at New Orleans's Times-Picayune, Katrina's tragedy grew out of politics and policies--entrenched and complex systems--rather than anything so idiosyncratic as individual failures. Nagin is criticized for his mistakes but isn't demonized; his blunders are understood as byproducts of the disparate interests he must satisfy--including New Orleans's African-American and business communities?--and the complex city he governs. Horne also discusses Louisiana's lost wetlands, bemoaning longstanding regional economic priorities--petroleum production valued over ecosystem protection--that imperiled New Orleans. And he takes on the politics of flood control and the Byzantine relationships among agencies responsible for the city's decrepit levees and floodwalls. Horne's effort to fix blame for the flooding is excellent detective work and fine storytelling. He uncovers a variety of colorful characters, including the opinionated Ivor van Heerden, who waded hip-deep into controversey when he began investigating the levees' failures, excoriating the Orleans Levee Board and the Corps of Engineers.

The Corps isn't the only federal entity Horne unmasks. At FEMA, horse-show-promoter-turned-agency-director Michael Brown represented the norm, not the exception. People with no experience in emergency management filled five of FEMA's ten top spots when Katrina hit. The disaster thus became a case study for Grover Norquist's school of governance: The federal apparatus, though not yet small enough to drown in a bathtub, was no longer big enough to rescue New Orleans from the flood. And, Horne argues, the Bush Administration's obsession with terror compounded the problem. After 9/11, money once earmarked for levees or disaster response instead funded wars in Afghanistan and Iraq or found its way to the Department of Homeland Security's budget. "What mattered in the narrower context of the Katrina response was that both tenets of the Bush faith--the small-government mantra and the conviction that the nation's gravest threats were posed by the likes of bin Laden not Katrina--conspired to gut the nation's disaster response bureaucracy in the name of making the nation safer," Horne writes. The storm, then, demonstrated that a secure homeland was little more than Republican spin.

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