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The Great Deluge: Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans, and the Mississippi Gulf Coastby Douglas Brinkley
Synopses & Reviews
In the span of five violent hours on August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina destroyed major Gulf Coast cities and flattened 150 miles of coastline. Yet those wind-torn hours represented only the first stage of the relentless triple tragedy that Katrina brought to the entire Gulf Coast, from Louisiana to Mississippi to Alabama.
First came the hurricane, one of the three strongest ever to make landfall in the United States — 150-mile- per-hour winds, with gusts measuring more than 180 miles per hour ripping buildings to pieces.
Second, the storm-surge flooding, which submerged a half million homes, creating the largest domestic refugee crisis since the Civil War. Eighty percent of New Orleans was under water, as debris and sewage coursed through the streets, and whole towns in south-eastern Louisiana ceased to exist.
And third, the human tragedy of government mis-management, which proved as cruel as the natural disaster itself. Ray Nagin, the mayor of New Orleans, implemented an evacuation plan that favored the rich and healthy. Kathleen Blanco, governor of Louisiana, dithered in the most important aspect of her job: providing leadership in a time of fear and confusion. Michael C. Brown, the FEMA director, seemed more concerned with his sartorial splendor than the specter of death and horror that was taking New Orleans into its grip.
In The Great Deluge, bestselling author Douglas Brinkley, a New Orleans resident and professor of history at Tulane University, rips the story of Katrina apart and relates what the Category 3 hurricane was like from every point of view. The book finds the true heroes — such as Coast Guard officer Jimmy Duckworth and hurricane jock TonyZumbado.
Throughout the book, Brinkley lets the Katrina survivors tell their own stories, masterly allowing them to record the nightmare that was Katrina. The Great Deluge investigates the failure of government at every level and breaks important new stories. Packed with interviews and original research, it traces the character flaws, inexperience, and ulterior motives that allowed the Katrina disaster to devastate the Gulf Coast.
"Historian Brinkley (Tour of Duty, etc.) opens his detailed examination of the awful events that took place on the Gulf Coast late last summer by describing how a New Orleans animal shelter began evacuating its charges at the first notice of the impending storm. The Louisiana SPCA, Brinkley none too coyly points out, was better prepared for Katrina than the city of New Orleans. It's groups like the SPCA, as well as compassionate citizens who used their own resources to help others, whom Brinkley hails as heroes in his heavy, powerful account — and, unsurprisingly, authorities like Mayor Ray Nagin, Gov. Kathleen Blanco and former FEMA director Michael C. Brown whom he lambastes most fiercely. The book covers August 27 through September 3, 2005, and uses multiple narrative threads, an effect that is disorienting but appropriate for a book chronicling the helter-skelter environment of much of New Orleans once the storm had passed, the levees had been breached, and the city was awash in 'toxic gumbo.' Naturally outraged at the damage wrought by the storm and worsened by the ill-prepared authorities, Brinkley, a New Orleans resident, is generally levelheaded, even when reporting on Brown's shallow e-mails to friends while 'the trapped were dying' or recounting heretofore unreported atrocities, such as looters defecating on property as a mark of empowerment. Photos." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Hurricane Katrina has been widely described as the largest 'natural' disaster ever to strike this country. It was not, of course. However violent the storm's meteorology, the cataclysm it triggered in New Orleans was almost entirely man-made. If the dozens of government, academic and journalistic post-Katrina investigations haven't convinced you of that, these four books will. Hastily — often sloppily... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) — written and larded with cant and outrage, they nonetheless make an irrefutable case that one of America's most evocative and treasured cities was devastated by bureaucratic incompetence and turf-warring, political myopia and malfeasance, and individual and corporate greed. Weightiest, in both pages and scope, is Douglas Brinkley's 'The Great Deluge,' a prodigious work of industry penned on the fly while the storm-displaced Tulane history professor flitted from one refuge to another for six months. It is also an infuriating hodgepodge that reads too often like a college sophomore's journalism thesis thrown together from video clips and Internet blogs, replete with pretentious dial-a-quote literary and pop-cultural references. Want to learn the recipe for a hurricane cocktail? Who owned a cat named 'Orange Kitty'? What Oprah Winfrey thought of FEMA's relief efforts? About looters defecating in a restaurant deep-fryer? It's all here somewhere. Hip-hop lyrics, National Public Radio transcripts and Larry King interviews vie with genuinely riveting survivor stories, National Guard diary entries, FEMA e-mails and the memories of NBC cameramen. Like miles of hurricane wreckage on a storm-swept coast, much of it is fascinating and much just junk. For those willing to slog through its more than 700 pages, however, 'The Great Deluge' presents an exhaustive overview of Katrina and its apocalyptic aftermath. To his great credit, Brinkley does not slight the Mississippi Coast. Some of his most compelling narrative describes the war-zone surrealism of the 50 miles there where Katrina's 30-foot storm surge came ashore. In surge-flattened Waveland, 15 policemen clung for hours in the flood waters to a 'butt-ugly bush' they had planned to chop down as an eyesore only weeks before. At the stifling Hancock Medical Center on the highest ground in Bay St. Louis, sweating doctors and nurses stripped almost to their underwear to keep operating while snakes and crawfish invaded the corridors and a panicked armadillo raced from room to room looking for shelter. Still, it beggars the imagination that the author and his publisher could have produced such a massive book without including a single map. How is the reader to make sense of the storm track or of key flood areas like the Lower Ninth Ward and the Industrial and 17th Street Canals without graphic help? Likewise, one wonders who, if anyone, was editing a text that spells flood 'dike' two different ways (mirroring the 'Dykes for New Orleans' bumper sticker proffered by the gay community?) and refers to ousted Senate majority leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) at one point as the 'former Louisiana Senator.' Brinkley also wears his politics more than a bit on his sleeve. He cuts all sorts of slack for Louisiana Gov. Katherine Babineaux Blanco, a Democrat, despite her deer-in-the-headlights reaction to almost everything about Katrina and her bizarre reluctance to call out the National Guard. His contempt for New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin and the Bush administration, on the other hand, would be excessive were their actions before and after the hurricane less criminally negligent. Nagin was so obsessed with his personal safety and cleanliness that he not only holed up on the 27th floor of the Hyatt Regency, ignoring staff urgings to lead his city, but at one point luxuriated in the shower aboard Air Force One, shaving his head, instead of lobbying the president for New Orleans' manifold post-Katrina needs. As for the Bush administration, we've all heard the FEMA stories, but how many can compare with FEMA Director Michael Brown's protest — while New Orleanians were dying — that he needed more than 20 minutes of phone-free dinner time because restaurant service was slow in Baton Rouge? Or with 100 critically needed rescue experts from all over the country being diverted en route to New Orleans for training on sexual harassment? If such tales are the real meat of 'The Great Deluge,' in 'The Storm,' Ivor van Heerden, the deputy director of the Louisiana State University Hurricane Center, focuses on the science of Katrina — principally the elegant computer modeling that forecast the hurricane's path and probable strength nearly a week ahead of time (a forecast largely ignored) and the engineering analysis of why New Orleans' levees failed. He argues persuasively that the city's now-famous levee breaches should have been treated like crime scenes. For all the hurricane's fury, what flooded New Orleans was very definitely not 'The Big One' that Van Heerden and others have pictured for years in the city's doomsday scenario. New Orleans' levees failed not from a catastrophic storm surge on Lake Pontchartrain but from elementary design flaws visible for decades — flaws exposed by what amounted to little more than a minimal Category 1 hurricane inside the city's vital drainage canals. Given the long-known history and geology of New Orleans' spongy soil, van Heerden writes, the federal government should be financially liable for the incompetence of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in underdesigning certain sections of the city's levee system. His book is rich with graphics that explain what went wrong and how to correct it. But he notes pessimistically that even after Katrina, state and federal lawmakers are still choosing corporate sugar plums over public safety when they write 'flood control' legislation. The CNN anchorman Anderson Cooper's forthcoming 'Dispatches From the Edge,' as might be expected, tells us less about Katrina than it does about Anderson Cooper. But it's an intriguing window into the disaster-junkie mindset that lures media wannabes — and us — into Third World voyeurism. Cooper — the son of blue-jean queen Gloria Vanderbilt and her fourth husband, actor-screenwriter Wyatt Cooper — was 10 when his father died of a heart attack. He has been haunted by an overwhelming sense of loss ever since, heightened by his brother's later suicide. He's dealt with these traumas by seeking out the world's more ghastly death zones — Bosnia, Somalia, tsunami-wrecked Sri Lanka, famine-wracked Niger. When CNN won't send him to places 'where the pain outside matched the pain I was feeling inside,' he heads there on vacation. His vignettes from the world's horrorscapes rise above the swagger of many journalistic memoirs because Cooper — poor little rich boy though he may be — writes with competence as well as feeling. And it's difficult not to empathize when he recognizes that the tsunami-like devastation in Mississippi and New Orleans has brought him full circle to the streets of his father's birth and boyhood. Chris Rose — who grew up here in Chevy Chase (Md.) — was an entertainment columnist at the New Orleans Times-Picayune until Katrina turned him into something approaching a war correspondent. '1 Dead in Attic' is his own 'Dispatches From the Edge' — a collection of columns written as he and his colleagues sought to retain sanity and keep working in the stinking, flooded wreckage of the once-beautiful city they love. These are impressionistic cries of pain and mordant humor, written as much for therapy as for witness, but they so aptly mirrored the sense of surreal dislocation experienced by New Orleanians that they turned Rose into a voice of the tortured city. Even before the Times-Picayune was awarded two richly deserved Pulitzer Prizes for its Katrina coverage, the paper's staffers were ricocheting around New Orleans in T-shirts saying 'We Publish Come Hell or High Water.' Rose's modest little paperback (available from www.chrisrosebooks.com) tells us what it took to keep doing that. Ken Ringle, a retired Washington Post staff writer, has written extensively about his home state of Louisiana, its politics and its hurricanes.", Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"It is Mr. Brinkley's portraits of such valiant individuals, combined with dozens of interviews with Katrina survivors, that lend his narrative an emotional immediacy and give the alarming statistics...a local habitation and a name." New York Times
"Brinkley has provided posterity with an invaluable, clear-eyed look into the early days after the maelstrom that turned New Orleans and the Gulf Coast into the U.S. equivalent of a Third World nation, complete with its own Diaspora. And he does this while pointing out the best and worst of human nature and human capabilities when faced with almost unimaginable sadness." Denver Post
Book News Annotation:
Brinkley (history, Tulane U.) has produced a popular history of the devastating 2005 hurricane and its horrifying aftermath. He weaves together accounts of the incompetent negligence of far too many government officials with portraits of the heroism displayed by hundreds of ordinary people in New Orleans and throughout the Gulf Coast. The narrative is based on newspaper accounts and hundreds of interviews conducted by Brinkley. Annotation ©2006 Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
New York Times bestselling author Brinkley tells the complete tale of the 2005 storm that forced him and thousands of his fellow New Orleanians from their homes, offering a unique, piercing analysis of the ongoing crisis and its repercussions for America.
About the Author
Brinkley is Distinguished Professor of History and director of the Eisenhower Center at the University of New Orleans.
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