Katrina was not a natural disaster but an engineering one, says the journalist and author. He chooses the best books on Hurricane Katrina, ranging from a novel to a geographical biography of New Orleans.
Don’t call it a natural disaster in the city of New Orleans or you’ll get in an argument. We’re all paying attention to the tenth anniversary of hurricane Katrina, but from New Orleans’s perspective it’s the tenth anniversary of the levees having failed. Katrina, when it hit New Orleans, was not a particularly strong storm, or at least it was not the kind of storm we’d be talking about ten years later. It’s just that the storm surge it created knocked down the levee system. Half of the 350 mile flood protection system failed — even though it was supposed to be strong enough to withstand a Category 3 hurricane, which Katrina was.
In New Orleans no-one says natural disaster. It was the man-made levees that failed. The US Army Corps of Engineers, who built the levees, admitted that there were basic mistakes made. In fact, several scientific teams studied it. One of the heads of one of the teams, a UC Berkeley engineering professor, called it ‘the worst engineering disaster since Chernobyl.’
You start your book with the story of police closing a bridge out of New Orleans to evacuees.
For many people, the only way out of town was a bridge connecting New Orleans to largely white suburbs. There were reports on the media of mass looting and rampant crime and so police cars blocked the bridge and there were officers standing there with rifles. This was a blockade that prevented largely African American crowds from crossing to safety. Police were just screaming in evacuees’ faces and cursing. Some of them are seventy-year-old grandmothers, little kids, New Orleans police officers. No-one was crossing that bridge into the white suburbs.
“It was not an equal opportunity disaster and it has not been an equal opportunity recovery.”
Can you outline the political and social atmosphere that leads to something like that happening?
To my mind, it should be one of those racial touchpoints we, in America, make synonymous with Howard Beach and Ferguson. It was awful what happened. But so much was happening, 80 per cent of the city was under water, people weren’t getting rescued. This story got lost.
How it happened was it shouldn’t have happened. The Crescent City Connection Bridge, the bridge we’re talking about, is run by the state. The governor can close down a bridge, the secretary of transportation can close down a bridge. They never gave that order. It was closed by the local police force, of the smallish town of Gretna. The sheriffs in that parish just decided they were going to close the bridge. The governor was furious, but she was concentrating on getting buses to the 50,000 people who were trapped. So, for two full days, it was locked down with no legal basis.
Now that it is ten years since the hurricane, how did things change for New Orleans?
In some ways, New Orleans looks better than ever. Anyone who’s ever lost possessions in a fire knows they buy you new stuff. So there’s all these new buildings, all these new homes. There’s a big startup field, young people flocked there. They discovered New Orleans after Katrina. The centre of the city is in really good shape. Neighbourhoods are being revived.
The other half of the story is that big parts of the city are still in pretty bad shape. There are 100,000 fewer African Americans living in New Orleans today than at the time of Katrina. What you see is black working-class communities, black middle-class communities, even a more prosperous black professional class, still struggling. In the Lower Ninth Ward, which became iconic after Katrina — black, working-class, poor — only 36 percent of its population is back ten years later. You look at the Seventh Ward — black, working-class, lower-middle-class — it’s maybe 70 percent back after Katrina. Pontchartrain Park — a black middle-class community — 75 percent back. I could go on with more neighbourhoods.
It was not an equal opportunity disaster and it has not been an equal opportunity recovery.
Your first book is a novel, The City of Refuge by Tom Piazza. What can a novel tell us about the disaster that non-fiction can’t?
It focusses on right before, during, and months after the disaster. It’s got two characters. I feel obligated in my book to talk about the president and the mayor and the governor and local officials. What I love about a novelistic treatment is that there are two characters: one is a white, alternative weekly editor. The other character is a black man from the Lower Ninth Ward who ends up in Houston.
It was interesting for me because I was reporting on life in Houston. If you were rescued from New Orleans, the odds were good that you ended up in Houston. At least 100,000 people from New Orleans ended up in Houston, which is a huge number. So I read quotes, and I talked to a few people. But there was something about him spending half a book with this one man as he was trying to get his mind around the fact that he lost everything, that his home was practically destroyed, his possessions, all his keep sakes. Now he’s dealing with it perched in Houston in a hotel or a couch and is slowly trying to rebuild his life. He captured so well the strangeness of life there. You have to rebuild a life knowing that your greatest hope is that you’re going to destroy that life and get back to New Orleans. You can’t just sit in Houston indefinitely.
So it’s about these two people trying to figure out how to do what’s best for them while meanwhile everyone else, from the president to the governor to the mayor on down, hasn’t a clue. Tom, who I met once — very nice man, great writer — does a nice job of weaving in the bigger story on the outside, of the indecision, while really focussing on these two human beings struggling to figure out what happened and what they need to do now.
Your second book is Douglas Brinkley’s The Great Deluge. Why did you choose this book?
It’s just this amazing snapshot. What Brinkley did so well is capture this remarkable, awful, surreal week in the life of the Gulf Coast. The storm surge hit and destroyed a lot of homes in Biloxi, Gulfport, places in Mississippi along the coast, the ‘Redneck Riviera,’ as some sarcastically call it. So he tells both stories at once. He had a team of people helping him do these interviews and he captured a cross-section of what life was like. He recreates what happened in the Convention Centre, the Superdome [venues where survivors congregated and conditions deteriorated]. He’s an academic, but it’s this really vivid snapshot of those first terrible days and it’s very well-written and very well-told.
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To the people who are interviewed for a book like this, to what extent is it useful for them as individuals to have their stories listened to and then published?
I’ve got nice reviews and it’s been gratifying, but the best feedback I’ve gotten so far is from a woman who’s in my book — black, professional class — who said to me ‘Katrina might be one of the most over-covered stories of our time, thank you because this is the first time I’ve had anyone tell my story.’ Even though we’ve had a lot of great reporting on New Orleans it was played out more as a simplistic narrative: wealthy whites, poor blacks. The black middle class, black professional class, their story was missing. When I went to the Lower Ninth Ward, it was the only place anyone turned me down to talk. There were three or four people who said ‘I’m sorry, I can’t tell this story any more, move on.’ I get that. But when I went into New Orleans East, the second community I focus on, everyone wanted to talk to me because, in a way, no-one had talked to them. Their story was missing. People appreciate that their story is being told.
Book three is Breach of Faith by Jed Horne. His paper, the Times-Picayune, won two Pultizer prizes for its coverage of Katrina. What is his insight in this book?
It’s written with this brawling spirit, you feel the frustration on every page. To remind you, 25,000 people weren’t picked up at the Superdome — a place that ran out of food and water two or three days before, and was medically overwhelmed — for five days. Buses didn’t show up at the Convention Centre until day six, where another 20,000 people were and where there were no provisions. That incredible frustration, anger, and confusion is captured in the book.
It’s written from the point of view of New Orleanians watching these bankers and CEOs that the mayor appointed after the flood decide whether to rebuild all of the city. For example, they were waiting on the federal government for flood elevation maps, because if you want flood insurance — which you need — they were not going to give it to you unless you abided by the rules. It took them eight months to make that map. Meanwhile, people were trying to live their lives.
Was the response in the months and years after Katrina basically a larger version of the slow response in the days after the flood?
There were two periods. There was that first week, and then there was the next nine years eleven months. A little over half the book is that first week, and then it starts reporting on the following months. Once the water had receded and the National Guard had taken control, 80 per cent of the city was covered in water, the schools were destroyed, the utilities were destroyed, there was no 911, no police, no business, what do you do? How do you rebuild? Jed starts that story.
The next book is Christopher Cooper and Robert Block’s Disaster, this talks more about the federal response. To what extent was this response due to the ideology of George Bush’s government?
It’s interesting you say that, because after the disaster people said it was all about race. I don’t doubt there would have been a difference between 50,000 black folks trapped in New Orleans versus 50,000 mostly white people in Orange County. I’m not saying race isn’t a factor. But ideology was a big factor too. When Bush was a candidate he gave Bill Clinton credit for turning around FEMA [the Federal Emergency Management Agency]. It became this amazing agency, it was finally being run by a professional, somebody who understood emergency management rather than a political appointee. But then the Bush administration came in and they believe in smaller government. One way to shrink the size of the government was to cut funding to FEMA, so they demoted the agency to a cabinet level — which made a big difference, it didn’t have the ear of the president any more, it had to go through an intermediary — and on top of that it had a much smaller budget. To me, ideology played a big role.
What I love about Disaster is that it’s co-written by two Wall Street Journal reporters. They tell the story through Homeland Security, through FEMA. They look at this disaster from the perspective of the apparatus that was supposed to be in place to rescue people. It’s rich with stories. Michael Brown [the then head of FEMA], who was hung out to dry by the Bush administration and, in everyone’s minds, is to blame for the botched response, actually comes off looking pretty well in the book. He’s not perfect but he was made a scape goat. A lot of other people made big mistakes too. There was a lot of political infighting.
“I’m not saying race isn’t a factor. But ideology was a big factor too.One way to shrink the size of the government was to cut funding to FEMA.”
You really feel with this book like you’re in the rooms where decisions are being made. You’re in the rooms when the wrong decisions are being made. It’s just two good reporters who did a good job of telling an important story. We need to understand what happened, why mistakes were made and maybe, hopefully, the people running FEMA have now read the book and can learn from it.
Has much changed?
New Orleans is much safer today than it was at the time of Katrina. It has a $14.5 billion flood protection system. Some complain, but it’s a really good system. FEMA, though, it can’t change. There are rules our government came up with rules, our Congress passed them, our president has signed them that say you have to go through these steps. There are regulations that have been created and so everything takes longer than you think. The city of New Orleans and FEMA are still negotiating today, ten years later, over how much money the city is owed for Katrina. It’s just endless. One of my favourite anecdotes in the book is this guy in City Hall who works out how he wants to spend some discretionary recovery money. He sends it to the state and the state sends back a flowchart eight feet long. This guy said ‘it took us eight months to get the first two feet.’ If you thought anything was going to take six months it meant it was going to take six years.
It seems that in a crisis like this you have endless bureaucratic processes and then you have the obvious immediate need of people.
There literally were ambulances at the parish lines that FEMA wasn’t letting in because some regulation hadn’t been satisfied. That’s a time when rules don’t exist.
Your last book is by a geographer, New Orleans: The Making of an Urban Landscape, by Peirce Lewis.
I can’t tell you how much I fell in love with this book. Some of it is timing in my life. I was in San Francisco, working for the New York Times covering Silicon Valley and my phone rang. I was asked to go to New Orleans and a journalist friend of mine said ‘you should read this book.’ It was the first book I read. It’s just so splendidly written. This guy is a geographer, he didn’t really know New Orleans when he got there, but he falls in love with it and just captures it. He doesn’t fetishise it like many others, he really captures what makes it unique: the architecture, the accents, the culture, the blending of French, Spanish, Haitian, free people of color, the jazz. He does such a great job of chronicling that. But there were little seeds of worry for this city in this book when it first came out in 1976.
Then he comes back in 2003, which happens to be two years before Katrina, and it’s a frightening portrait. He’s watching as this city is building more and more on former swamp land, which is very dangerous. There are 96,000 people living in New Orleans East, almost all of them African American. They feel like they’re living the dream, but you read his book and you see they’re buying swamp land. Lewis is very angry no-one’s talking about the great risk of living there. He has this great line, that the elevator changed the New Yorks and Londons of the world, allowing you to build vertically, and the wood pump — invented in the late-nineteenth century — transformed New Orleans. It gave humans the arrogance to build on anything. Swamp land is five feet below sea level. They turned it into an expensive sub-division and sold the houses for a few hundred thousand dollars.
It was such an interesting experience for me to be reading this book while the city was debating whether to rebuild the whole city or tell certain low-lying communities that they can’t rebuild. It’s such a complicated question, and he acknowledges it. What makes me like his book is that it addresses race. The African Americans weren’t given the opportunity to have home ownership until the 1970s, by which time all of the high ground in New Orleans was taken. So, by saying we’re not going to rebuild these low-lying neighbourhoods you’ve just told eighty percent of the city’s African American population that you’re not rebuilding their neighbourhoods.
This book has a geographer’s perspective on a story that is all about geography. Fifty percent of the place is below sea level. One or two feet below sea level is ok, it leads to a little flooding in the street, but five or more feet and we’re talking about communities under water and that’s what happened after Katrina. New Orleans was swamped, there were ten feet or more of water in parts of New Orleans East. It’s prophetic, though it wasn’t a deliberate warning.
What was the history of New Orleans that the two editions of this book in 1976 and 2003 traces?
There started to be a lot more urban problems, crimes and tensions. New Orleans is the Deep South. When they integrated the schools in 1960 that changed the shape of the city. 150,000 or so whites left because it would mean that their children would have to go to integrated schools. So a city that was two-thirds white was two-thirds black by the time of Katrina. That’s the backdrop that’s occurring while Lewis is writing this book. It changed the economics of the city. It became a poor city, there was less money invested in the schools. Even the whites who stayed tended to be uptown with money and would send their kids to private schools, parochial schools. There’s a defunding of the public schools system that was over ninety percent African American at the time of Katrina. He captures this in the two editions.
The really interesting thing about New Orleans that I really understood after reading this book was that it’s an absolutely preposterous place to put a city. It’s low lying, it’s got terrible bugs, six months of the year it’s got to worry about hurricanes. But if you didn’t have a New Orleans there, you’d have to build a city because it’s the port of this amazingly important river, the Mississippi, which touches something like thirty states in the country. It’s essential that there be a port city there. So that contradiction is the book: It makes no sense to build a city there but they did, and let’s see what it’s like.
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