The Drowning

Scene in front of the Superdome in New Orleans (Aug. 30, 2005)
Scene in front of the Superdome in New Orleans (Aug. 30, 2005) (Mark Wilson / Getty Images)
Reviewed by Ceci Connolly
Sunday, July 30, 2006


Hurricane Katrina and the Near Death of

a Great American City

By Jed Horne

Random House. 412 pp. $25.96

It is hard to imagine that, less than a year after the worst natural disaster in modern U.S. history, there would be much appetite for reliving the horrors of Hurricane Katrina -- manmade or otherwise. And it is equally difficult to imagine encountering anything fresh on a subject that's been so thoroughly dissected. Yet in this solid if somewhat detached recounting, New Orleans journalist Jed Horne has provided new insights into how a ferocious storm, governmental ineptitude and racially tinged inequities conspired to permanently jeopardize one of the nation's cultural gems.

Breach of Faith begins and ends at the Lower Ninth Ward home of Patrina Peters, 43, a resilient African American mother of two who's disabled by epilepsy, a heart condition and Crohn's disease. With Katrina barreling up the Gulf Coast, it is Peters, holed up in the "camelback"-style house that had been in her family for generations, who eerily sets the stage. Exactly 40 years earlier, she recalls, Hurricane Betsy cut a similar course, killing 75 people and decimating much of the historic black neighborhood. "I have a funny feeling about this," Peters tells her daughter.

From Peters's pre-storm premonition, Horne catalogues the catastrophe in almost hour-by-hour fashion. From the early, misplaced sighs of relief that New Orleans had "dodged a bullet" to the mid-storm mayhem to the hideous finger-pointing by impotent officials, Horne paints in vivid detail what amounted not to just one disaster but to disaster piled upon disaster.

An accomplished author and a veteran editor at the Times-Picayune, the city's gallant newspaper, Horne blessedly brings order to the chaos. Breach of Faith meticulously traces not only the storm's path but also the warnings blared by his colleagues at the newspaper and such experts as Ivor van Heerden, the outspoken deputy director of the Hurricane Center at Louisiana State University. With a much needed calm, Horne helps clarify the record on what transpired in the now-notorious twin cesspools of the calamity: the Superdome and the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center. He knocks down many of the most outlandish tales that circulated at the time, including an assertion by New Orleans Police Chief Edward Compass of "little babies getting raped" in the sweltering arenas. At the same time, the author does not back away from the roasting, putrid reality for the evacuees there, who were treated more like hostages than like citizens.

Nor does Horne flinch from other, less famous tragedies that befell his beloved city. His chapter on the five-day nightmare inside the public Charity Hospital, "downtown New Orleans's huge depression-era monument to poor people's medicine," is among the best portrayals ever penned of that grand institution's struggle for survival. Through the eyes of Kiersta Kurtz-Burke, a doctor working in Charity's rehab department for patients recovering from strokes, head traumas and spinal injuries, we see the hospital's valiant efforts to feed and treat 450 patients -- 46 of them in critical condition -- without electricity to power the ventilators, X-ray machines and laboratory equipment that have become staples of modern medicine.

The medical challenges, it turns out, were the least of the woes; rampant rumors of violence and an amply justified sense of abandonment took a far worse toll. "Kurtz-Burke would recall sitting up Thursday night with a quadriplegic," Horne writes, with the doctor and her patient listening to the thwack-thwack of helicopters rescuing patients from the adjacent Tulane Medical Center. "Everybody knew the score," Kurtz-Burke said months later. "We had poor people. We were going to be last [to be evacuated]. Nobody had any illusions about that."

Horne even traveled to Kobe, Japan, producing a keen assessment of the similarities and differences between the January 1995 earthquake there, which killed 6,401 people instantly, and the crushing blow that struck his hometown. Yet the chapter on Kobe, informative as it is, highlights the weaknesses of Breach of Faith . Strangely, the chapter begins with two pages on storm-related suicides before shifting to the Kobe tale, never returning to the bitterly important issue of the ongoing mental-health crisis in the author's own community. The pages devoted to Kobe might have been better spent in Horne's backyard, taking readers deep inside the devastated Plaquemines Parish, overcrowded shelters, the Army field hospital or a trailer park.

What Breach of Faith often lacks is passion. To steal a cliché, Horne's account is more head than guts. By focusing on government agencies such as FEMA and reports produced months later by congressional investigators, he sometimes fails to convey the true emotional blow that Katrina delivered. Politicians, Army Corps engineers, wealthy lawyers, hotel magnates and French Quarter denizens frequent these pages more often than do the city's richer stew of characters -- characters such as Malik Rahim, an erstwhile Black Panther and armed-robbery convict turned civic leader who single-handedly built a health clinic, feeding station and shelter out of the rubble. But we never see the faces of the sick and hungry lined up at Rahim's Common Ground clinic; we never ride along as Rahim's street medics visit illegal immigrants injured on construction sites.

Horne deserves credit for producing an important book in such short order. Yet by the time we come back to Patrina Peters and her now-drowned house in the Lower Ninth, I found myself yearning for the soul of the Katrina story, the smelly, quirky, gut-wrenching, deadly truth of a city disintegrating. Ah, for just one peek at the unidentifiable bodies inside the makeshift morgue, one drink at the Snug Harbor music club the night the great jazz patriarch Ellis Marsalis made his return, one terrifying night camped out with refugees on the I-10 overpass, one day with a grieving mother or one walk in an old-time jazz funeral procession, the wailing horns just breaking our hearts. ·

Ceci Connolly, a Washington Post staff writer now on leave and writing in Mexico, spent three months in Louisiana covering Hurricane Katrina.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company