Two days before Katrina hit, my wife and I drove across Lake Pontchartrain. We went to the town of Covington to ride out the storm, as we had done with others, at my brother's house on a tree-shadowed lane overlooking a bayou.
Big trees fell like matchsticks, blocking our way out. With electricity down, we listened, dank and hot, to a battery-powered radio. Mayor Ray Nagin exploded on day four at President George Bush: "Flying over in Air Force One does not do it justice!" Nagin seemed like the last man at the bottom of America, shaking his fist at the gods. I cheered him for that.
I joined an upscale chain gang, cutting through fallen oak and pine, netting a bad case of poison ivy in the process. For baths, we turned to a leaf-choked swimming pool that never left you feeling clean.
We got out five days later and began a seven-week odyssey across Louisiana and Texas, staying with friends and in-laws, watching the TV coverage with a numbing sensation. We made it back to an unflooded home in late October; the yard and garage became a science project. (Readers interested in a sustained account of those two months, please see my essay "The Holy City of New Orleans" in the anthology Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans?
Now I am engulfed by the first tide of Katrina books. If you watched that disaster-coverage on television, you may wonder, "What's to know that we didn't see?"
A lot, in fact. About global warming, how cities live or die, the science of levees and stunning human dramas to shape our memory of the flood.
"Katrina, on her journey across the Gulf of Mexico, generated energy equivalent to 100,000 atomic bombs." So writes Ivor van Heerden, a director of the LSU Hurricane Center, in The Storm.
Heerden, with his South African accent, became a news protagonist by hammering the Army Corps of Engineers for faulty maintenance of the levees. He produced a counterstory to Katrina's wrath: human error, the mistakes of a federal agency that caused massive flooding. His prose is often clunky, but Heerden probes the engineering debacle with a clear eye, focusing on sleazy politics like a guy with a water cannon. I applaud that focus. Go, Ivor, go.
How did the country that put men on the moon fail to rescue survivors in the Superdome? The question haunts me yet, as it does Tulane historian Douglas Brinkley. Brinkley's The Great Deluge is a 700-page reach for an epic. With an army of interviews, Brinkley tracks the first week in gripping episodes: People trapped in water, others looting; cops, politicians and journalists at their best and worst.
Brinkley scorns the failure of elected officials, from President Bush to Gov. Kathleen Blanco to Mayor Nagin. Yet the book sags with redundant passages and embarrassing factual errors.
And Brinkley's portrait of Nagin is bitter. When he mocks Nagin for taking too long in a hot shower on the fourth day, aboard Air Force One, I thought of that dirty swimming pool where my kinfolk and I were reduced to bathing, and I wanted to cheer Nagin for that. He didn't get my vote last month. But I know why Nagin was reelected. A majority identified with his struggle and forgave the blunders.
"Rarely does history grade a presidency so quickly or so harshly," writes Jed Horne in Breach of Faith, the best of the Katrina books thus far. A veteran editor of The (New Orleans) Times-Picayune, Horne delivers pathos in the survivor stories, and shows a shrewd eye for detail, as when water moccasins bask on a city rooftop.
Horne treats the city as organism -- the pulsing joy-streams of life before, the blood ties of so many who fled, the cutting wounds as Congress stalled on a relief plan. The set pieces on power brokers shimmer with irony, as when Bob Harvey, an ex-potentate of the Levee Board, says: "But if you want to kill the Orleans Levee Board, that might not be such a bad idea."
That's an encouraging sign that we might emulate the Dutch with a patronage-free flood-defense system. Horne has solid chapters on how the Netherlands summoned foresight to develop their system after a devastating flood in 1953, and the comeback of the city of Kobe, in Japan, after a brutal earthquake 11 years ago. Cities can and do rebuild, with political will.
In Path of Destruction: The Devastation of New Orleans and the Coming Age of Superstorms, reporters John McQuaid and Mark Schleifstein of The Times-Picayune give lucid context to Katrina's wrath with a history of hurricanes and findings on climate change.
"To some scientists," they write, "it appeared that those already-pessimistic expectations might be wrong, and that nobody knew the upper limit of the destructive power of hurricanes -- or even if there was one."
The authors continue: "In the Netherlands, flood defense equaled national defense. It was part of national identity. In the United States, it was just another local issue among a thousand to be hashed out in subcommittee hearings."
Reporters who cover natural disasters and wars carry mental baggage that most of them don't talk about in print. Give credit then to CNN anchorman Anderson Cooper for Dispatches from the Edge: A Memoir of War, Disasters and Survival. Before he became famous, before he began freelance-reporting overseas, Cooper had to deal with his brother's suicide: He jumped off the balcony of their mother's apartment building in New York.
"No matter how many times I heard the story," he writes, "it didn't make any sense. After a while I stopped listening. The story didn't get me any closer to understanding. If anything, it pointed out what wasn't known, and what might never be. …Why didn't he leave a note? Sometimes my mother wept, and screamed. I think I envied her that. I cried, but at night, in my pillow, not wanting others to hear. I suppose I worried that if I let go, I too, would fall off the edge, plunge into whatever blackness had swept my brother away."
That loss, and memories of his father's early death, stalk Cooper on reporting trips to places like Rwanda, Somalia, Sri Lanka, the Katrina-ravaged Mississippi Gulf Coast and then New Orleans.
"I'm not shocked anymore by the bodies, the blunders," Cooper reports. "You can't stay stunned forever. The anger doesn't go away, but it settles somewhere behind your heart; it deepens into resolve. … Here in New Orleans, the compartmentalization I've always maintained has fallen apart, been worn down by the weight of emotion, the power of memory. For so long I tried to separate myself from my past. I tried to move on, forget what I'd lost, but the truth is, none of it's ever gone away. The past is all around, and in New Orleans I can't pretend it's not." His honesty is admirable.
No one will ever accuse Chris Rose, a columnist for The Times-Picayune, of ignoring the past. The passionate intensity of his articles since Katrina has given voice to a collective unconscious. His collection, 1 Dead in Attic, sounds a voice of the city, raw and deep.
"Perhaps I should just stay on the stretch of safe, dry land Uptown where we live and try to move on, focus on pleasant things, quit making myself miserable, quit reliving all those terrible things we saw on TV that first week," he broods.
But he can't "move on" -- or "move forward," as many in the media are wont to say.
"And so I drive. I drive around and try to figure out those Byzantine markings and symbols that the cops and the National Guard spray-painted on all the houses around here, cryptic communications that tell the story of who or what was or wasn't inside the house when the floodwater rose to the ceiling. …There's one I pass on St. Roch Avenue in the 8th Ward at least once a week. It says: '1 Dead in Attic.'"
Many of those life-or-death tattoos sprayed on houses by National Guardsmen have now been painted over. But with only half of our population back, the levees are still vulnerable as storm season heats up. Gov. Blanco has just sent state troopers and the National Guard to help the New Orleans Police Department after a rash of drug killings.
You may wonder, why do people live there? Because, as these books lay bare, we can't help loving it.