Bitter Waters

Dozens are trapped on a school rooftop in Orleans parish during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. This photograph was taken on Aug. 30, 2005.
Dozens are trapped on a school rooftop in Orleans parish during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. This photograph was taken on Aug. 30, 2005. (Mario Tama/getty Images)
Reviewed by Ken Ringle
Sunday, May 14, 2006


Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans, and the

Mississippi Gulf Coast

By Douglas Brinkley

Morrow. 716 pp. $29.95


What Went Wrong and Why During Hurricane Katrina -- The Inside Story from One Louisiana Scientist

By Ivor van Heerden and Mike Bryan

Viking. 308 pp. $25.95


A Memoir of War, Disasters, and Survival

By Anderson Cooper

HarperCollins. 212 pp. $24.95


By Chris Rose

Chris Rose Books. 158 pp. Paperback, $13

Hurricane Katrina has been widely described as the largest "natural" disaster ever to strike this country. It was not, of course. However violent the storm's meteorology, the cataclysm it triggered in New Orleans was almost entirely man-made. If the dozens of government, academic and journalistic post-Katrina investigations haven't convinced you of that, these four books will. Hastily -- often sloppily -- written and larded with cant and outrage, they nonetheless make an irrefutable case that one of America's most evocative and treasured cities was devastated by bureaucratic incompetence and turf-warring, political myopia and malfeasance, and individual and corporate greed.

Weightiest, in both pages and scope, is Douglas Brinkley's The Great Deluge , a prodigious work of industry penned on the fly while the storm-displaced Tulane history professor flitted from one refuge to another for six months. It is also an infuriating hodge-podge that reads too often like a college sophomore's journalism thesis thrown together from video clips and Internet blogs, replete with pretentious dial-a-quote literary and pop-cultural references. Want to learn the recipe for a hurricane cocktail? Who owned a cat named "Orange Kitty"? What Oprah Winfrey thought of FEMA's relief efforts? About looters defecating in a restaurant deep-fryer? It's all here somewhere. Hip-hop lyrics, National Public Radio transcripts and Larry King interviews vie with genuinely riveting survivor stories, National Guard diary entries, FEMA e-mails and the memories of NBC cameramen.

Like miles of hurricane wreckage on a storm-swept coast, much of it is fascinating and much just junk. For those willing to slog through its more than 700 pages, however, The Great Deluge presents an exhaustive overview of Katrina and its apocalyptic aftermath. To his great credit, Brinkley does not slight the Mississippi Coast. Some of his most compelling narrative describes the war-zone surrealism of the 50 miles there where Katrina's 30-foot storm surge came ashore. In surge-flattened Waveland, 15 policemen clung for hours in the flood waters to a "butt-ugly bush" they had planned to chop down as an eyesore only weeks before. At the stifling Hancock Medical Center on the highest ground in Bay St. Louis, sweating doctors and nurses stripped almost to their underwear to keep operating while snakes and crawfish invaded the corridors and a panicked armadillo raced from room to room looking for shelter.

Still, it beggars the imagination that the author and his publisher could have produced such a massive book without including a single map. How is the reader to make sense of the storm track or of key flood areas like the Lower Ninth Ward and the Industrial and 17th Street Canals without graphic help? Likewise, one wonders who, if anyone, was editing a text that spells flood "dike" two different ways (mirroring the "Dykes for New Orleans" bumper sticker proffered by the gay community?) and refers to ousted Senate majority leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) at one point as the "former Louisiana Senator."

Brinkley also wears his politics more than a bit on his sleeve. He cuts all sorts of slack for Louisiana Gov. Katherine Babineaux Blanco, a Democrat, despite her deer-in-the-headlights reaction to almost everything about Katrina and her bizarre reluctance to call out the National Guard. His contempt for New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin and the Bush administration, on the other hand, would be excessive were their actions before and after the hurricane less criminally negligent. Nagin was so obsessed with his personal safety and cleanliness that he not only holed up on the 27th floor of the Hyatt Regency, ignoring staff urgings to lead his city, but at one point luxuriated in the shower aboard Air Force One, shaving his head, instead of lobbying the president for New Orleans's manifold post-Katrina needs. As for the Bush administration, we've all heard the FEMA stories, but how many can compare with FEMA Director Michael Brown's protest -- while New Orleanians were dying -- that he needed more than 20 minutes of phone-free dinner time because restaurant service was slow in Baton Rouge? Or with 100 critically needed rescue experts from all over the country being diverted en route to New Orleans for training on sexual harassment?

If such tales are the real meat of The Great Deluge , in The Storm , Ivor van Heerden, the deputy director of the Louisiana State University Hurricane Center, focuses on the science of Katrina -- principally the elegant computer modeling that forecast the hurricane's path and probable strength nearly a week ahead of time (a forecast largely ignored) and the engineering analysis of why New Orleans's levees failed. He argues persuasively that the city's now-famous levee breaches should have been treated like crime scenes. For all the hurricane's fury, what flooded New Orleans was very definitely not "The Big One" that Van Heerden and others have pictured for years in the city's doomsday scenario. New Orleans's levees failed not from a catastrophic storm surge on Lake Pontchartrain but from elementary design flaws visible for decades -- flaws exposed by what amounted to little more than a minimal Category 1 hurricane inside the city's vital drainage canals.

Given the long-known history and geology of New Orleans's spongy soil, van Heerden writes, the federal government should be financially liable for the incompetence of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in under-designing certain sections of the city's levee system. His book is rich with graphics that explain what went wrong and how to correct it. But he notes pessimistically that even after Katrina, state and federal lawmakers are still choosing corporate sugar plums over public safety when they write "flood control" legislation.

The CNN anchorman Anderson Cooper's forthcoming Dispatches From the Edge , as might be expected, tells us less about Katrina than it does about Anderson Cooper. But it's an intriguing window into the disaster-junkie mindset that lures media wannabes -- and us -- into Third World voyeurism.

Cooper -- the son of blue-jean queen Gloria Vanderbilt and her fourth husband, actor-screenwriter Wyatt Cooper -- was 10 when his father died of a heart attack. He has been haunted by an overwhelming sense of loss ever since, heightened by his brother's later suicide. He's dealt with these traumas by seeking out the world's more ghastly death zones -- Bosnia, Somalia, tsunami-wrecked Sri Lanka, famine-wracked Niger. When CNN won't send him to places "where the pain outside matched the pain I was feeling inside," he heads there on vacation.

His vignettes from the world's horrorscapes rise above the swagger of many journalistic memoirs because Cooper -- poor little rich boy though he may be -- writes with competence as well as feeling. And it's difficult not to empathize when he recognizes that the tsunami-like devastation in Mississippi and New Orleans has brought him full circle to the streets of his father's birth and boyhood.

Chris Rose -- who grew up here in Chevy Chase -- was an entertainment columnist at the New Orleans Times-Picayune until Katrina turned him into something approaching a war correspondent. 1 Dead in Attic is his own Dispatches From the Edge -- a collection of columns written as he and his colleagues sought to retain sanity and keep working in the stinking, flooded wreckage of the once-beautiful city they love. These are impressionistic cries of pain and mordant humor, written as much for therapy as for witness, but they so aptly mirrored the sense of surreal dislocation experienced by New Orleanians that they turned Rose into a voice of the tortured city. Even before the Times-Picayune was awarded two richly deserved Pulitzer Prizes for its Katrina coverage, the paper's staffers were ricocheting around New Orleans in T-shirts saying "We Publish Come Hell or High Water." Rose's modest little paperback (available from tells us what it took to keep doing that. ยท

Ken Ringle, a retired Washington Post staff writer, has written extensively about his home state of Louisiana, its politics and its hurricanes.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company