The Great Deluge: Hurricane New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast by Douglas Brinkley (William Morrow/HarperCollins), 716 pages, $37.95 cloth. Rating: NNNN Rating: NNNNN
When Hurricane Katrina chewed up Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, it didn't just destroy lives and property; it obliterated the trust ordinary citizens had in their social contract with the political system. From New Orleans City Hall to the White House, paralysis, cowardice, sloppiness and arrogance created the perfect storm of failure that will plague the Gulf states for decades.
This tragic tale is recounted in agonizingly minute detail by New Orleans historian Douglas Brinkley in his lengthy The Great Deluge. It's a multi-layered book covering the political, human and journalistic dimensions of the storm, which left more than a thousand dead and whole towns obliterated.
While Brinkley offers a rogues' gallery of politicians who disgraced their offices in the time of crisis, his venom is mostly directed toward Ray Nagin, New Orleans's ineffectual, cowardly and dithering mayor.
According to Brinkley, Nagin had little sympathy for his city's poor who couldn't evacuate as the monster hurricane approached.
The Superdome and Convention Center, where many of the stranded thought they would find safety, instead became steaming houses of horror, thirst and brutal violence.
President Bush comes across as a detached leader seemingly oblivious to the nightmare unfolding along the Gulf. And the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), in charge of disaster planning and relief, is revealed as a confused bureaucracy, unable to fulfill the basics of its mandate.
Brinkley's descriptions of ad hoc citizen rescue efforts are described so vividly you can almost smell the toxic mire of New Orleans neighbourhoods. But Brinkley has a bad habit of quoting from books, songs or movies to help create an image of the action.
It's a small distraction in a book that will leave the reader mesmerized by the failures of those in power and the courage of ordinary people in times of crisis.
Write Books at firstname.lastname@example.org