all changed, changed utterly

In the aftermath to Hurricane Katrina, I wrote a post about my frustration with the whole situation called “I will not yield to a politic of despair.” This is a sort of follow-up, since I’ve just finished reading Douglas Brinkley’s history of Katrina, The Great Deluge. In my original post, I posited that the history of Katrina might actually have a chance of being true, since so many of us watched it daily on the news, but that it would only happen if we demanded the truth, and didn’t let Bush and others cover it over as they so obviously wanted to do.

Watching the footage of Hurricane Katrina as it rolled out over the last week in August last year, I was changed utterly. Although I’ve always been a pointy-headed liberal, I mostly did agree with my friends on the right that the U.S. was a great country. I felt a lot of the time that it was a great country headed in the wrong direction, but I had faith that we could still get back on track. After watching thousands of my countrymen and -women struggle for survival in the aftermath of a predicted natural disaster, my belief in the U.S. was shaken to its roots.

The title of the post I wrote last year was taken from Dr. Martin Luther King’s last sermon, “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution.” Reading this book, I was reminded of another line of that great oratory: “It’s all right to tell a man to lift himself by his own bootstraps, but it is a cruel jest to say to a bootless man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps.” Katrina left thousands of New Orleanians bootstrapless, and then added insult to injury by making them swim, crawl, float, or wheel their loved ones in a shopping cart to reach safety.

Brinkley doesn’t pull a lot of punches in the book. It is meticulously well-researched (check out the hour-by-hour timeline at the end), and while there are many everyday people lauded as heroes, none of the three major political figures (Mayor Nagin, Governor Blanco, President Bush) involved comes off particularly well. Brinkely documents a chain of bad decisions–some merely misguided (Blanco), some outright dangerous (Bush), some born out of bad faith (Nagin).

Interspersed with the bad decisions made by those at nearly all levels of government (go Coast Guard! you folks did the right thing!) are many, many personal stories of those who survived and those who didn’t. Brinkley makes a point to document not only those who died in the storm and its aftereffects, but also to chronicle what happened to some of the survivors, including some who succumbed to Katrina-related stress. I made the mistake of bringing it with me on a plane–while it’s “unputdownable,” I think I freaked out my seatmate a little by crying while reading some of the more moving chapters.

If you’re still looking for ways to help the survivors, check out this link (but act fast). If you want a great, touching read that you’ll be thinking about for days to come, check out The Great Deluge.

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September 22, 2006. books for grown-ups. 4 comments.