The Great Deluge: Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans, and the Mississippi Gulf Coast

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HarperCollins, May 9, 2006 - History - 716 pages
8 Reviews

In the span of five violent hours on August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina destroyed major Gulf Coast cities and flattened 150 miles of coastline. Yet those wind-torn hours represented only the first stage of the relentless triple tragedy that Katrina brought to the entire Gulf Coast, from Louisiana to Mississippi to Alabama.

First came the hurricane, one of the three strongest ever to make landfall in the United States -- 150-mile-per-hour winds, with gusts measuring more than 180 miles per hour ripping buildings to pieces.

Second, the storm-surge flooding, which submerged a half million homes, creating the largest domestic refugee crisis since the Civil War. Eighty percent of New Orleans was under water, as debris and sewage coursed through the streets, and whole towns in south-eastern Louisiana ceased to exist.

And third, the human tragedy of government mis-management, which proved as cruel as the natural disaster itself. Ray Nagin, the mayor of New Orleans, implemented an evacuation plan that favored the rich and healthy. Kathleen Blanco, governor of Louisiana, dithered in the most important aspect of her job: providing leadership in a time of fear and confusion. Michael C. Brown, the FEMA director, seemed more concerned with his sartorial splendor than the specter of death and horror that was taking New Orleans into its grip.

In The Great Deluge, bestselling author Douglas Brinkley, a New Orleans resident and professor of history at Tulane University, rips the story of Katrina apart and relates what the Category 3 hurricane was like from every point of view. The book finds the true heroes -- such as Coast Guard officer Jimmy Duckworth and hurricane jock Tony Zumbado.

Throughout the book, Brinkley lets the Katrina survivors tell their own stories, masterly allowing them to record the nightmare that was Katrina. The Great Deluge investigates the failure of government at every level and breaks important new stories. Packed with interviews and original research, it traces the character flaws, inexperience, and ulterior motives that allowed the Katrina disaster to devastate the Gulf Coast.

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The great deluge: Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans, and the Mississippi Gulf Coast

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Brinkley is a historian, not a journalist used to word counts, which may explain how he managed to take 624 pages to cover the shortest chronology (August 27 through September 3, 2005) of these ... Read full review

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Aside from political or military histories, the bulk of my non-fiction reading is about topics that were – for one reason or another – neglected in the course of my formal education. Reading a thick tome on Katrina only a few years after we all witnessed it (either personally or via live media) seemed like an excellent opportunity to gain some insight into the accuracy (or lack thereof) of contemporaneous accounts of a major historical event. The result? Kind of mixed bag.
The anecdotal stories of suffering, bravery, loss, neglect and foolishness are interesting and important. They add color and emotion to the enormity of the disaster; they personalize the story of Katrina without becoming maudlin or sentimental. On the other hand, they tend to tell us little more than we already know (or suspect) about the anguish that attends all disasters. Furthermore, most of us watched these horrors unfold on our televisions and therefore are not surprised to learn that they did, in fact, happen.
The most enlightening aspects of The Great Deluge focus on the specifics of infrastructure, government personnel, the political environment, and the chains of causation within the human community (as opposed to the weather) that exacerbated the after-effects of the storm. Even so, the abovementioned anecdotes of personal loss tend to push these more germane aspects too far into the margins of the story. Personally, I could have benefited from a more thorough explanation of the missions, goals and operating procedures of the different governmental agencies - so that I would have a clearer picture of where such agencies failed or succeeded, and why. (This kind of detail was laid out nicely with respect to the canal system, the levees, and the reasons for their failures.) The focus on individual personalities, while fascinating and appropriately infuriating, tended, again, to obscure the larger issues of bureaucratic failure.
Otherwise, it's a well written and engaging book that maintains its credibility throughout; never did I feel that the author was venting personal grudges or animosities - or engaging in overwrought emotionalism at the expense of historical accuracy. It moves quickly and refrains (somewhat self-consciously at times) from getting mired for too long in pedantic detail.

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About the author (2006)

Douglas Brinkley is professor of history and director of the Roosevelt Center at Tulane University.

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