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.
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.