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Secrets and Indifference

It's easiest for profiteers to make money when people are still numbed by the shock of a disaster

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In her book The Shock Doctrine, Naomi Klein wrote about "disaster capitalism" — how corporations rush in after a calamity to profit while the public is still in shock. Thankfully, New Orleans and the Gulf Coast are no longer reeling from Hurricane Katrina, which makes last week's publication of two Katrina memoirs — Katrina's Secrets, by former Mayor Ray Nagin, and Deadly Indifference by former FEMA head Michael "Heckuva Job, Brownie" Brown — of little interest to those who suffered from each man's incompetence in the wake of the federal floodwall failures. Still, the two books are getting some attention, which makes them worthy of comment.

  To his credit, Nagin offers an easy-to-understand timeline of the days following Katrina, from the levee collapses to the growing desperation at the Louisiana Superdome and the slow federal response. And his explanation of how politically connected contractors profited in the wake of President George W. Bush's suspension of the Davis-Bacon Act is a part of the Katrina story that is too often ignored. Sadly, Nagin's legendary ego also is on full display. "It was destiny I was mayor of New Orleans when Katrina hit," he says early on (yes, really). The cluelessness just gets thicker from there, as do the conspiracy theories.

  Nagin snipes at Gov. Kathleen Blanco ("she entered the governor's office without any meaningful executive level experience") — ignoring both her two terms as lieutenant governor and his own previous job at a cable-television monopoly. He also implies Blanco held a grudge over his endorsement of her GOP opponent, Bobby Jindal, in 2003. ("There will be hell to pay for you in the future!") "It was actually prophetic," Nagin writes. Later, when he accuses Blanco of not providing prompt aid to New Orleans, he concludes, "There was clearly some unspoken ulterior motive." As for his own foul-ups, he's more philosophical: "Since this was unprecedented, we made our share of mistakes and I made many tough calls."

  For all his faults, at least Nagin has a legitimate claim to a Katrina story. That cannot be said of Brown, the FEMA director whose performance was so disastrous (and politically embarrassing for then-President Bush) that Brown resigned on Sept. 12, 2005 — barely two weeks after the world watched New Orleans unravel on live TV. In his memoir, Deadly Indifference, Brown describes the city as "equal parts Creole cooking, zydeco music and hubris," which shows how little he's learned since 2005.

  Before joining FEMA, Brown had been a commissioner for the International Arabian Horse Association. He rose from FEMA general counsel to Hurricane Katrina point man under Homeland Security Director Michael Chertoff. When regional FEMA director Marty Bahamonde warned Brown via email, "Thousands are gathering in the streets with no food or water. ... Estimates are many will die within hours," Brown's press secretary replied with a note that he needed extra time for dinner at Ruth's Chris Steak House in Baton Rouge: "Gievn (sic) that Baton Rouge is back to normal, restaurants are getting busy." Deadly indifference, indeed.

  It was also Brown who, more than 72 hours after the disaster, told CNN's Paula Zahn "The federal government did not even know about the Convention Center people until today." That, after the entire world had been watching New Orleanians waiting for rescue there for days on round-the-clock live TV. Brown sniffs that people "broke into the Convention Center" and that it "should not have been used in the first place." (On his Twitter feed, Brown told Gambit to read the book before criticizing him. We agree with the reader who told him, "Don't need to read the book. Lived it.")

  One of the tenets of The Shock Doctrine is that it's easiest for profiteers to make money when people are still numbed by the shock of a disaster. We'd like to believe that had either of these men published their books when refrigerators lined our curbs and New Orleans was still burying its dead, they would have been reviled by the press and the public. It's now been almost six years since Katrina. New Orleans and the rest of the world have moved forward. Ray Nagin and Michael Brown have not. They obviously think there's still a buck to be made.

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