Many of the journalists who covered the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans were veteran reporters who had covered wars and foreign natural disasters, people who clung tightly to their sanity in the face of horrific human tragedy by reassuring themselves that if it got too bad, they could always go home, where things like that didn’t happen.
After a few weeks, many left New Orleans badly shaken. But the bureaucratic bungling and petty politics that conspired to convert a mild Category Three hurricane into the human tragedy the rest of the country watched on television in horror didn’t end in weeks or months, as journalist Gary Rivlin shows in the painstakingly researched Katrina: After the Flood.
Rivlin first covered Katrina for the New York Times, during those first few weeks when most of the city was still flooded and the truth was difficult to fish out of the murky soup of rumors and lies that washed over the city. Even after he left the Times in 2008, he continued to go back.
Katrina relies on Rivlin’s interviews over a period of years with the people who were trying to rebuild New Orleans and the people who were failing to. He also spent time with families who were struggling to rebuild their own lives and who had to decide whether that was even possible in a city where some had generations of history but saw no future.
Katrina is at its heart a detailed chronicle of failure. Rivlin is unsparing in his chronicling of certain politicians, including former Mayor Ray Nagin, now in federal prison on wire fraud, bribery and money laundering convictions. Contractors who got lucrative rebuilding jobs testified they had to pay off Nagin first by investing in a private business he owned with his sons and even pick up a private flight for Nagin and others to a Saints game in Chicago.
Rivlin’s reporting allows him to paint deep portraits of his characters and explain relationships, like the acrimony-filled one between Nagin and former Gov. Kathleen Blanco. Their problems went back to before the storm — in 2004, Nagin had endorsed Bobby Jindal over Blanco in the race for governor.
In the immediate aftermath of the storm, both found fault with each other’s actions, though Rivlin finds far more evidence that Blanco was doing the best she could while Nagin was “holed up in that hotel room, scared to death,” as Blanco said.
“In a different world, Blanco might be seen as a kind of superwoman,” Rivlin writes. “She alone had taken Katrina seriously among top leadership in the Gulf Coast.”
She declared a state of emergency a day before Nagin or Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour did, and two days before President George W. Bush did. While Nagin was spending hours on the set of a children’s movie being shot in New Orleans a day and a half before the storm was set to hit, Blanco was in the state’s Emergency Operations Center getting ready for what the National Hurricane Center was warning could be a Category 4 or even 5 when it hit New Orleans.
Rivlin also documents the shortcomings in the federal response, and the political jockeying going on at the highest levels, silly distractions that kept crucial resources out of New Orleans for days, weeks, even months and years.
One early example of the White House’s political maneuvering was the issue of federalizing the National Guard, something the White House tried to force Blanco to do and then blamed the delayed federal response on her refusal. Rivlin points out that, though Nagin took up the complaints, Mississippi Gov. Barbour, “the ultimate GOP insider,” was never pushed to federalize his state’s National Guard.
Rivlin goes on to explain how in the months and years that followed, promises of federal aid weren’t kept, while local activists, businessmen and politicians squandered opportunities to do meaningful work rebuilding the city. He focuses on central characters and their personal struggles: the black bank president, the white homeowner turned neighborhood activist, the black family with generations of history in New Orleans and the internal squabbles they endure as some members of the family fight to return and others find they simply can’t.
Rivlin does an admirable job keeping the political personal and helping readers understand how deeply and devastatingly Katrina affected everyone in the city. He also delves into the racial politics of New Orleans after the storm, especially the fears in the black community that white elites were trying to prevent their neighborhoods from coming back.
The book is timed to come out a couple of weeks before the 10th anniversary of Katrina, but the timing this summer is equally important as part of the conversation America is currently having on the subject of race relations. Sadly, New Orleans is not an example of post-racial America. Instead, Rivlin finds there are broken promises, uneven assistance and historic communities that are still pock-marked with crater-sized potholes and heart-breaking disappointments. That should leave the rest of us shaken.
Susannah Nesmith is a writer in Miami.