The release of historian Douglas Brinkley's book, The Great Deluge: Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans and the Mississippi Coast, in the midst of the first citywide elections after Katrina -- combined with Vanity Fair's sensationalized pre-publication excerpts -- was bound to cast the work locally as a political broadside aimed at sabotaging Mayor Ray Nagin's bid for re-election.
That's too bad, because the book encompasses so much more than Nagin's -- and New Orleans' -- travails. At a minimum, The Great Deluge represents an important first step towards memorializing what happened (and what failed to happen) during and immediately after the storm that changed America.
Starting with the day New Orleans began to realize that Katrina was headed its way -- Saturday, Aug. 27, two days before landfall -- Brinkley takes the reader on a seven-day roller-coaster ride, ending with the final evacuations from the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center and the arrival of the 82nd Airborne on Saturday, Sept. 3, a date that marked the restoration of order in a city that had descended into chaos. He documents presidential conversations aboard Air Force One as well as neighborhood rescues in the Lower Ninth Ward, thus literally and figuratively telling the Katrina saga from 30,000 feet above the ground as well as 8 feet below sea level, in New Orleans and along the Mississippi Gulf Coast.
This soon after the storm, that's a bold, even audacious, undertaking -- one both worthy of his late friend and mentor Stephen Ambrose and reminiscent of the sweep of John Barry's Rising Tide. Barry, however, documented the 1927 Flood from a distance of 70 years. Brinkley undertook his oral history less than 70 days after Katrina, and readers should be mindful of the differences in those perspectives. If nothing else, it adds weight to Nagin's criticisms of the book.
On the other hand, it's fair to say that while Brinkley is unsparing -- and unrelenting -- in his criticism of Nagin, he is equally blunt in his assessments of President George W. Bush, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, former FEMA chief Michael Brown, Gov. Kathleen Blanco and others. Brinkley also heaps praise on several members of Nagin's inner circle, most notably local Homeland Security Chief Terry Ebbert and then-Deputy Police Chief Warren Riley, who is now chief of police.
"What happened here was an abysmal collapse of civilization," Brinkley said in an extended recent interview with Gambit Weekly. "It's not a matter of blaming one person. It's a complete breakdown of our society. And in order to get it right in the future, we're going to have to diagnose what went wrong. It's not a matter of the blame game, it's a matter of truth. What happened? Who did what? How did you respond? Many good people didn't respond well. And many people that we think are marginalized misfits responded with raw courage to the crisis. It threw the whole pecking order topsy-turvy."
In fact, one of the overarching themes of the book is that, while Katrina exposed weaknesses and failures at all levels of government -- from Nagin to Blanco to Bush, FEMA and Chertoff -- it also called forth the unlikeliest of heroes.
The very first responders will never be known by name. When the levees broke, and the bowl started filling, hundreds of residents with recreational vessels went into high gear. The city had people conducting rescues with yachts, dinghies, ferries, canoes, rafts, sailboats, scows, skiffs, sloops, tubs, catamarans, dories, draggers, baiters, and ketches -- and even a floating wagon. ... It never dawned on them to wait for the FEMA trucks or the Oregon National Guard.
"I was proud of Louisianans, because it was Louisianans who saved Louisiana, from the day Katrina hit all the way to September 3, until the 82nd Airborne came," Brinkley says. "The first responders who saved people were my fellow Louisianans -- the Wildlife and Fisheries boats, the Louisiana National Guard, the NOLA Homeboys and the Cajun Navy."
Brinkley also has high praise for the U.S. Coast Guard ("outshone the National Guard, FEMA, the Red Cross, and everybody else rolled into one") and the city of Houston ("More than any other city in America, Houston exuded the can-do, let's-figure-out-how-to-make-it-happen attitude."). He dedicates the book to both.
Another recurring theme is the city's long-standing failure to recognize and deal with its inherent social and economic vulnerabilities, along with those of its levee system, until Katrina thrust them into our collective face:
Bifurcated, if not officially segregated, New Orleans gave the impression of a city that didn't even know itself. In metaphor, the city was a legendary beauty, but one that had refused to look in the mirror for a long, long time. ... Always determined to squeeze the last drop out of midnight, New Orleans never looked to the future, except as a means of keeping things, right or wrong, the same. Something had to make New Orleans look hard in the mirror. Unfortunately, the one power on earth that could make it rise to see itself clearly was coming on fast, in the form of a Category 3 hurricane named Katrina.
Of course, as soon as Katrina hit, questions of race and class rose to the fore. Brinkley notes that while local government was "ill-prepared," the feds were "uncaring."
The difference was that right after the storm, city and state leaders were doing their best with whatever they had. Leaders at the federal level, on the other hand, meaning Secretary Chertoff and President Bush, shirked the Gulf Coast until pressured to act, days late. And so it follows that local mistakes were committed before anyone knew the racial makeup of the victims. The lag at the federal level started after it was obvious who was affected the most.
Finally, Brinkley's tome will have lasting significance because it lays out, methodically and graphically, all the man-made contributions to -- and exacerbations of -- a major natural disaster, starting with federal "improvements" such as the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet and continuing through the missteps of Nagin, Blanco, Bush, Chertoff, Brown, FEMA and others during and after the storm.
Lest anyone forget, Nagin's failures during and after Katrina will forever leave him open to criticism. In Brinkley's case, it's a question of timing and intensity. The bigger picture is that the mayor's race will be over this Saturday, but Brinkley's book will still matter for years to come -- not because of what he says about Nagin, but because of what he says about everybody involved.
"There were failures across the board," Brinkley told Gambit Weekly.
His criticisms of Nagin have garnered the most attention, not just because they are so frequent and intense, but also because they come at election time. Brinkley shrugs off Nagin's rejoinder that he is out to make a quick buck by publishing the book at this time. "The publisher controls the release date, not me," he says, adding, "Our publication date was set long before the date of the election was set."
He admits, however, that he was and is "angry" at Nagin, and he continues to paint a portrait of the mayor as cowardly and incompetent.
"I was aghast and am still repulsed by the visions of poor and elderly people in the Superdome and in the Convention Center, and the mayor doesn't come to reassure them," Brinkley says. "When I asked Mayor Nagin why he didn't come to talk to them ... he said he didn't have a megaphone. That was his answer to me. And my view was -- you know what? -- make one. Get up there and address the people. These are people who needed leadership. ...
"Instead, he kept a hideout in the Hyatt ... afraid of his own people. And it's very sad to see an African-American mayor of a major city afraid of African Americans, afraid of the poor and the downtrodden or the people without transportation."
In the book, Brinkley time and again paints a portrait of Nagin as either clueless, self-absorbed or cowardly. Nagin disputes all of that as "lies."
What was most astonishing, however, was that Nagin had abandoned City Hall, where the official Emergency Operations Center had been created on the ninth floor, for the supposed safety of a high-rise hotel. His excuse for jumping ship was weak. 'I remember us coming over here [City Hall] first and my security guards were a little concerned about the building,' Nagin recalled. 'The swaying of the building. So we decided to go over to the Hyatt.' Nagin's rationale was nonsensical. Why leave a nine-story swaying building for a twenty-seven-story one? Obviously the Hyatt was going to sway more than City Hall. Apparently City Hall was a suitable place for the police, RTA officials, hospital administrators, National Guard, et al., to gather and work in unison, but not the all-important Mayor Nagin.
Ironically, it was from Nagin's perch in the Hyatt that he launched one of the most memorable public tirades in U.S. history -- calling WWL radio host Garland Robinette and blasting the slow federal response in an emotional outburst peppered with near-expletives and gut-wrenching passion. Both in his book and now, Brinkley says that was Nagin's high point, because he spoke to and for all New Orleanians.
"Nagin's Thursday speech to WWL and Garland Robinette was an accurate expression of the frustrations that people were feeling toward the slow federal response, and I think he was correct to go on the radio and make that speech," Brinkley says.
Overall, Brinkley's most telling, and perhaps most accurate, dig at Nagin riffs on an observation made by Times-Picayune columnist Chris Rose, whose column on Aug. 27 noted Nagin's insouciant way of dismissing bad news with flippant non-sequiturs. Rose and Brinkley call it "Ray Speak."
New Orleans residents were already familiar with "Ray Speak," a confusing inversion of words and ideas, all gathered up in tortured syntax, typically producing a mixed message, but marketed to his constituents as candor. You might call it pandering with seemingly earnest zeal. The net effect of "Ray Speak" was to sell his inaction as a form of action.
In that context, it's easy to see how Nagin could utter his infamous "Chocolate City" speech and then receive a warm welcome in Lakeview.
In effect, Brinkley portrays Nagin as a doppelganger George W. Bush -- one as detached as the other. Just as the president can land a fighter jet on a carrier and proclaim with a straight face, "Mission accomplished" -- and then send thousands more GIs to their deaths in Iraq -- Nagin can look into a TV lens and tell constituents, "I was there" -- when in fact he was "AWOL" during Katrina. In that sense, it should come as no surprise that Nagin describes himself and Bush as "buds."
Speaking of Bush, Brinkley's most frequent depiction of the president is one of a man with palpable "disinterest" in the tragedy. "[H]e seemed to be the only person in America without an outraged opinion about the lackluster federal response to Katrina," Brinkley writes.
The president's first "visit" to the hurricane-ravaged region was a fly-over in Air Force One, a "high-altitude disconnect" two days after the storm that drew immediate and thoroughly warranted criticism from the press as well as average Americans. Then, of course, came Bush's infamous "Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job" remark in Mobile, Ala., which overshadowed his tearful embrace of a hurricane victim in Biloxi, Miss., an hour later and continues to haunt both Bush and Brown. In fact, Brinkley predicts that "heck of a job" will become one of Bush's gifts to the popular lexicon.
"My same anger that I have toward Mayor Nagin, I share toward President Bush," Brinkley says, "because from Monday until that Friday, when he finally came down to New Orleans, he needed to have been down here. ... He needed to go to the Ninth Ward, to Lakeview, to New Orleans East and tell the world, 'I'm the president and I care.' ....
"That was his tipping point -- Katrina, not Iraq. There's nobody of any integrity that will tell you that the president responded well during that week ... because he did not behave well from August 29 'til September 3. The response of the federal government was bureaucratic, legalistic and insensitive."
After Katrina, the Gulf South region -- and the United States as a whole -- needed compassion. What it got instead was the incompetence of George W. Bush, who acted as though he were disinterested in a natural disaster in which there was no enemy to be found. More than any other event, Bush's slow response to the Great Deluge made Americans ask if he was a bunker commander in chief, unfastened from the suffering of the Gulf South, relying too much on cautious paper pushers such as Brown and Chertoff for advice. The gutsy president, it seemed, couldn't find his gut, much less his heart, in his reaction to Katrina.
Brinkley tells Gambit Weekly that, in his view, what started Bush's slide in the polls -- which continues today -- was his "abysmal" performance during Katrina, not America's inability to finish the war in Iraq. Last week, The New York Times reported that Bush's popularity had sunk to a new low.
While Nagin and Bush were largely absent during the initial days, Gov. Kathleen Blanco may wish that she could take back a television appearance or two. "The low point for Blanco was looking like a nincompoop on television," Brinkley says, pulling no punches on the governor he otherwise sees as a victim of a White House smear campaign that began two days after the storm -- just as the national press was blasting Bush for the slow federal response.
In truth, there was plenty of blame to go around.
"Just as New Orleans wasn't properly communicating with Baton Rouge," writes Brinkley, "Baton Rouge wasn't properly communicating with Washington, D.C. There was a chain of failures."
The book also notes the renowned disdain that Nagin and Blanco have for one another, saying the two were "visibly uncomfortable with each other, a crackle of tension in the air" at a joint news conference on Aug. 27, just after contra-flow began.
Unfortunately for Blanco, her relationship with Bush was not much warmer. Brinkley documents the now-legendary attempt by Bush to convince Blanco to federalize the Louisiana National Guard -- a request the governor refused. She is still lambasted by conservatives for that decision, which she took 24 hours to mull over before giving the White House her answer. Brinkley says it was the right move, though.
"There's not a governor in America who would tell you that Blanco didn't do the right thing by telling Bush no on that," he says. "There's not a single governor -- Republican or Democrat -- that would forfeit their National Guard. It became a political blame game."
Throughout the book, Brinkley seems to be of two minds about Blanco, as the following passages show:
It's now clear that Blanco should have better prepared Louisiana for the Big One, taking more seriously than she did the New Orleans doomsday scenarios like Hurricane Pam. The day after the hurricane wasn't the time to look for emergency bus drivers. A system should have been in place -- like the one in Texas -- for fleets of buses to gather at assigned spots near the population centers, ready to go after the storm. It also must be said that Blanco was god-awful on television, discouraged and sad. She needed to appear strong and tough, spitting in the eye of Katrina and reassuring her constituents, as did Mississippi's Haley Barbour. ...
But Blanco deserves credit for her ability to improvise in the days after Katrina. She barely ate or rested. She did absolutely everything she could to help victims. Mistakes were made, but she also dealt with each crisis that occurred in a thoughtful, rational manner. Not once did she crack under the strain. She didn't swear. She didn't denounce Bush, Chertoff, or Brown.
The juxtaposition of Blanco's dowdiness with Barbour's confidence has been widely noted. Brinkley says it gave Blanco "the appearance of being out of the game, when in fact she was in the game, making real things happen -- but she never was able to let the people of Louisiana in exile know that."
In effect, he says Blanco's biggest blunder was bad PR. "She was so concerned about saving the lives of Louisianans that she blew the media off," Brinkley recalls. "In some ways, that's admirable. But the problem is, we never got the message out that Louisianans were rescuing Louisianans. ... I think media naivet was her low point."
Did she have a high point?
"She, not FEMA, finally got buses into the city to evacuate stranded citizens from the Superdome and the Morial Convention Center," Brinkley says. "She worked around the clock."
Two officials who definitely did not work around the clock during Katrina -- and could not be accused of being nave about the media, either -- were FEMA boss Brown and Homeland Security Secretary Chertoff. Brinkley saves some of his most scathing criticism for them.
"The sorriest Cabinet officer's performance I've ever read about in American history is Chertoff during Katrina," Brinkley says. "The guy stayed in Washington, was disinterested ... and gave the President the wrong advice."
In the book, he writes:
Clearly, Chertoff didn't just make a mistake during the first days of Katrina -- he did virtually nothing at all, which was by far the greater sin. With the hurricane approaching Louisiana and Mississippi, Chertoff never even went to his office, staying at home for the crucial forty-eight hours before landfall. Most astonishing of all, as Katrina ravaged nearly 29,000 square miles of America on Monday, Chertoff didn't even speak to Brown until 8 p.m. ...
While fellow citizens were dying, screaming for help, clutching chunks of floating wood and palm fronds trying to stay alive, Chertoff, the one American who could have helped the most, turned a casual, cold, indifferent eye to their plight.
When Brown put through his 8 p.m. telephone calls that Monday, Chertoff was at his home resting.
Brown, meanwhile, comes in for his share of criticism.
At noon on Monday, Brown made an incredible announcement: he directed all emergency responders from outside the region to stay home, until specifically requested by local authorities. ... Unfortunately, many outfits that could have helped in the scramble to save lives listened to this overly cautious FEMA order. Others, who rushed to help, were stopped at gunpoint before reaching the disaster areas and told to go back home. ... On Meet the Press, Jefferson Parish President Aaron Broussard said, "We had a thousand gallons of diesel fuel on a Coast Guard vessel docked in my parish. The Coast Guard said, 'Come and get the fuel right away.' When we got there with our trucks, they got the word. 'FEMA says don't give you the fuel.'"
Over and over again, FEMA actually stopped truckloads of supplies, water, or ice on some bureaucratic pretext or other. Meanwhile, people stranded along the coast went without drinking water for days."
By contrast, local Homeland Security chief Terry Ebbert, a Nagin appointee and former Marine colonel who served in Vietnam, was "the unsung hero of New Orleans" during Katrina, says Brinkley.
"This Marine stayed on duty 24/7, never shirked his responsibility," the author recalls. "I think when the smoke clears from the Katrina saga, Terry Ebbert's commitment to saving people in New Orleans and to helping the city get back on its feet will be seen as heartfelt and dutiful. ... He stayed calm. ... He was the guy that was getting all the things done that week. If there's a Katrina Hall of Fame one day, he should be on the list of people who behaved admirably."
Also coming in for praise is new Police Chief Warren Riley, who was then a deputy chief trying to hold things together as NOPD came unraveled. Nagin named Riley the city's top cop a month after Katrina.
"I learned to have a new respect for Warren Riley," Brinkley says. "He was a true professional police officer under duress. ...
"Many [NOPD cops] had a cold indifference for people who were trapped in the bowl, but Riley never lost focus and stayed professional and tough. It makes me feel better in post-Katrina New Orleans that he's in charge of the Police Department."
While Brinkley generally disses most NOPD officers, he praises the well-documented heroics of Capt. Tim Bayard: "Furious at officials who were failing to properly organize rescues, Bayard simply joined the homegrown effort. He launched boats from places in virtually every district. He put his good citizenship ahead of the red tape that may have bound his badge."
Others whom Brinkley praises include City Council members Oliver Thomas and Jackie Clarkson.
"When Katrina started coming, Oliver stayed cool," Brinkley says of Thomas. "He went down to the Ninth Ward and tried to get people to leave. He stayed throughout the storm, got out there in the streets, got out in boats and tried to start rescuing people and was a hands-on presence in the early rescues of the week."
Clarkson, he notes, "showed a lot of grit and a lot of character. She evacuated her family and then said, 'I'm not leaving.'" The book explains how she spent many hours at Nagin's side in the Hyatt, trying to reassure him, and was one of several supporters who "goaded" the mayor into making his oft-replayed Thursday phone call to Garland Robinette's WWL radio show on Thursday, Sept. 1.
Yet another local hero is state Rep. Cedric Richmond, of whom Brinkley writes: "One person who really catapulted Governor Blanco into action mode that Saturday was Cedric Richmond, the [chairman] of the black caucus in the Louisiana Legislature. He spent the entire weekend telling everybody in New Orleans East, part of the Ninth Ward, to 'get the hell out.'"
One of the few public agencies to draw universal praise was the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, whose agents "truly were the first responders," Brinkley writes. He adds that "their tireless work immediately became the stuff of Louisiana legend."
One manner in which Brinkley's book shines is the attention he gives to ordinary citizens who rose to the occasion in New Orleans, St. Bernard, Bay St. Louis, Pass Christian and elsewhere. He artfully weaves their stories among the high-minded attempts by Bush, Nagin, Blanco and others to get a grip on the situation -- reminding us that getting a grip is often a matter of simply taking care of what's right in front of you at the time.
If there's a fault in the book -- other than Nagin's broad-brush claim that its assertions about him are untrue, which is open to debate -- it's the smattering of misspelled names and misidentified locations that apparently resulted from a rush into print. For example, neighborhood activist Jimmy Delery's last name is repeatedly printed as "Deleray," as is Delery Street in the Lower Ninth Ward.
Several others' names are misspelled, including famed Blue Dog painter George Rodrigue, who is referred to as "Rodriguez" -- something any good copy editor should have caught. Deputy CAO Cynthia Sylvain-Lear is referred to as "Sullivan-Lear," Times-Picayune Features Editorturned-reporter James O'Byrne is identified as "James O. Byrne" several times, and reggae fans will wince upon seeing Israel Vibration referred to in the double plural ("Israeli Vibrations").
In other instances, locations in the Seventh Ward, such as the St. Bernard Housing development and the London Avenue Canal, are identified as being "in the Ninth Ward," and the NOPD district in eastern New Orleans is mistakenly called the Second District, when in fact it's been the Seventh District for decades.
Most glaring of all is the statement at one point that Bush "seemed as though he was suffering from jet lag -- except that Washington was in the same time zone as Mobile." Since when? The nation's capital is in the Castern time zone, whereas Mobile follows Central time.
Such errors are unfortunate, because Brinkley clearly put a lot of time and effort into the work, and it otherwise stands as a fitting threshold for serious future study of Katrina. He began the work as an oral history, and it's sufficiently footnoted to qualify as a first draft of history.
Brinkley wrote The Great Deluge at the suggestion of his editors at HarperCollins. Just before the storm, the Tulane University professor was in the middle of a work on Theodore Roosevelt. He rode out Katrina in New Orleans and then evacuated his family to Houston, then returned home -- both to help where he could and to lay the groundwork for the book.
Brinkley describes The Great Deluge as "a very emotive book" in which he "felt an obligation to say something." Indeed, the author says a lot in the book's 624 pages (plus timeline, footnotes and index). One irony in the controversy surrounding the work is that Brinkley's literary and historical first response, while heartfelt, suffers from the some of the same sins of execution that he eloquently and passionately unmasks on the part of our local, state and national leaders. The good news for Brinkley is that he can get a "do-over" in subsequent printings. We can only hope that New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast will not see another Katrina for many, many years.
- The Great Deluge notes the renowned disdain that Nagin and Blanco (shown here before the City Council) have for one another, saying the two were "visibly uncomfortable with each other, a crackle of tension in the air" at a joint news conference on Aug. 27, just after contra-flow began.
- Getty Images
- While it's easy to focus on Brinkley's criticism of Mayor Nagin, he is unsparing in his assessments of President George W. Bush, then-FEMA chief Michael Brown and Homeland Security head Michael Chertoff.
- Cheryl Gerber
- Brinkley heaps praise on several members of Nagin's inner circle, most notably local Homeland Security Chief Terry Ebbert and then-Deputy Police Chief Warren Riley (pictured), who is now chief of police.
- Cheryl Gerber
- Brinkley writes of how City Councilwoman Jackie Clarson spent many hours at Nagin's side in the Hyatt, trying to reassure him, and was one of several supporters who "goaded" the mayor into making his oft-replayed Thursday phone call to Garland Robinette's WWL radio show on Thursday, Sept. 1.