Katrina, Nagin, and the Blame Game
It’s fairly safe to say that in a time of crisis, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin isn’t the guy you’d want responsible for your well-being. During the buildup to Hurricane Katrina, Nagin—a former telecommunications executive with a healthier appetite for demagoguery and malapropisms than the actual work of governance—seemed concerned more with keeping the local Chamber of Commerce happy than with ensuring the safety of his city’s residents. As recounted in The Great Deluge, Douglas Brinkley’s monumental history of the calamity, Nagin had the strange (and entirely unfounded) belief that ordering a mandatory evacuation of New Orleans would leave the city vulnerable to a lawsuit from tourist-dependent industries. On Saturday, 26 August, while Katrina gathered force over the unusually warm waters of the Gulf, the mayor worried over legal strategies; “Direct action was necessary on a dozen fronts and Nagin was hesitating like a schoolboy afraid to get his report card.” It’s a clearly etched portrait of fecklessness, the spineless leader who looks down the barrel of the gun and blinks, and like much of this book, hard to read without wishing for the consoling filter of fiction (He’d be a great villain if this were made-up). Because that’s what we truly want from this, or any, history of Katrina: clearly assigned blame. In that sense, at least, Brinkley’s book truly does its job.
Calling Katrina and its aftermath, the Great Deluge, “a disaster that the country brought on itself,” Brinkley is clearly out to point fingers from the get-go. Which is as it should be, given how clearly foreseen nature’s onslaught was. We’ve all heard the post-mortems listing the array of reports and news stories published just in the past few years which laid out, in some detail, just what would happen if a massive hurricane came tearing through New Orleans. It was sketched out like a filmmaker’s storyboard. The systematic destruction of nearby wetlands left little barrier between the city and the sea, levees designed after 1965’s Hurricane Betsy to withstand only a Category 3 hurricane would not stand, and the city would fill up like a bathtub—hopefully everybody would have gotten out beforehand.
Yet somehow, despite all the warnings and plans, a cascading torrent of incompetence stretching over all levels of government, from Nagin to Governor Blanco to FEMA head Michael Brown, conspired against the creation and implementation of a competent pre-emergency plan; what Brinkley refers to as “a chain of failures.” The failures included everything from FEMA’s legendary ineptitude and outright lies about aid that never materialized to New Orleans police officers blithely ignoring (and even unaccountably threatening) citizens in distress to one particularly painful episode where Amtrak offered the city 700 free tickets to get people out of New Orleans—this is just before Katrina hit, when about a fifth of the city’s 460,000 residents where still there—only to have their good deed go to waste when they couldn’t get calls returned from Nagin’s office. Even for the most news-obsessed among us, who devoured endless cable footage and lengthy print reportage during the Deluge, this barrage of shameful inadequacy still manages to sting.
The blame isn’t relegated to the usual officials, though, as Brinkley also discusses the uniquely New Orleans-style torpor that seemingly immobilized the city from preparing for the obvious, referring to the city as “a legendary beauty, but one that had refused to look in the mirror for a long, long time.” It’s a depressing portrait of a city seemingly doomed from the outset, one determined to make the wrong decisions time and again. In fact, just as this article was being written, Ray Nagin had just taken his oath of office for a second term—his constituents seemingly unfazed by utter lack of leadership, vision or courage.
If Brinkley’s book had been little more than a laundry list of failure, though, it wouldn’t carry the punch that it does. In over 700 pages, the historian and Tulane professor—best known for general audience classics like Tour of Duty and The Boys of Pointe du Hoc)—paints a broad canvas of the blighted Gulf Coast areas, studding the book with bright profiles of rescuers, journalists, abandoned residents, beleaguered businessmen, and baffled officials. It’s sort of a one-man version of how news networks will “flood the zone,” covering every angle possible. Trying for the most part to avoid a hectoring tone in his accounts of individuals and their responses to the Deluge, when it comes to the true villains of the piece, Brinkley goes for the jugular, as in this description of Michael Brown: “Self-congratulatory and comically suave, Brown was a cuff-link shooting Republican dandy.” Just as there are villains, there must be heroes, and Brinkley finds them all over the place, whether it’s NBC’s Brian Williams making his journalistic bones by doing days upon days of live reportage while delirious with dysentery, to Ninth Ward pastor Willie Walker who as a first responder saved hundreds in the aftermath. Sadly, the bright spots are few and far between in this book, which is ultimately an encyclopedia of greed, failure, cowardice, and blind stupidity.
If one had to point out a failing of The Great Deluge it’s that Brinkley all too often abandons his sober historian’s voice for one that he probably imagines is more populist, but comes off as just plain odd. He describes NBC News troubleshooter Heather Allen this way: “Allan was, as Humphrey Bogart might say, ‘One tough broad.’” And a businessman fighting looters is talked about in this fashion: “When the lights went ... Jimmy Deleray was living in a gangster’s paradise.” In a book of this size and scope, some bad phrasing is inevitable, though it is possible that Brinkley simply took on too vast a project, aiming to write one tome to cover the entire Deluge. He admits early on that other writers will obviously follow, humbly referring to his book as “an opening effort”.
Even though The Great Deluge may ultimately be more important than it is great, Brinkley deserves credit for the size and scope of his vision, as well as the blistering anger he directs towards the necessary villains, all of whom know who they are.