Years ago my husband and I spent a grim, rainy day at the former Dachau Concentration Camp in southern Germany. The museum’s last exhibit, in white letters against a black background, was a single line from American philosopher George Santayana: Those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it.
The historian Douglas Brinkley, a long-time New Orleans resident, agrees. Uncovering the Katrina disaster, pointing fingers, Brinkley presents a story worthy of Job or John Steinbeck. Mostly his book is homage, giving historical dignity to ordinary people who risked their lives to save others. With humor and compassion, irony and wisdom, Brinkley-who teaches at Tulane University-rejoices in hordes of dragonflies, hovering over mucky water to eat New Orleans mosquitoes. He praises heroic, electric-less MASH units. He tells of frail 90-year-olds caring for the dying. He also corrects many misconceptions about the hurricane.
Brinkley’s weeklong chronicle is evenhanded, factual and emotionally riveting. It begins on August 27, 2005, two days before the hurricane’s landfall, the day Louisiana’s Governor Kathleen Blanco asked President Bush for full federal aid to protect lives and property, and especially to care for those with special needs.
Only a year earlier, the Federal Emergency Management Agency funded a New Orleans hurricane-simulation exercise, and emergency-management plans were posted on City-Hall Web sites. Three days before hurricane landfall, the plans required government to evacuate the 100,000 New Orleans residents who had no personal transport the elderly, poor and sick. Concerned about hotel owners’ profits, not lives, Mayor Nagin and the federal government ignored the mandatory evacuation plan. They left the helpless to fend for themselves. When Nagin finally ordered evacuation, hours before hurricane landfall, it was unenforceable.
Explaining the story of the Other America-New Orleans poor without reliable electricity, decent schools, television sets or proper sewage-Brinkley shows why government evacuation was necessary. Many elderly, sick and poor people had no family or transportation. Because 12 percent of the city was over age 65, 25 percent of families lived on less than $15,000 a year, and 38 percent of the population was at the poverty level, many could not leave without their end-of-the-month Social Security or welfare checks.
Planning for the worst, Governor Blanco wisely pre-positioned 200 Louisiana Fish and Wildlife Service boats at regional locations outside the coastal parishes. So did the Louisiana Coast Guard. Untrained in emergency management, both groups were the government’s only first-responders.
Using their own boats, citizen-rescuers sprang into action. They included hundreds of members of the Ninth-Ward Soul Patrol, flood dogs and NOLA [New Orleans, Louisiana] homeboys like Jimmy Deleray, the reggae singer Michael Knight, the Jesuit-educated Lieutenant Governor Mitch Landrieu, the dreadlocked Mama D and the Newman High School administrator Michael Prevost.
Where was FEMA? The people trained to protect our nation, the people whose job is to quickly bring in aid were absent. Brinkley notes that the self-centered and comically suave FEMA director, the political appointee Michael Brown, had helped George Bush’s 2004 re-election effort. He turned a blind eye while FEMA gave hundreds of millions of dollars, weeks before Election Day, to Florida citizens who sustained no damage from recent hurricanes. Yet after Katrina, in the south’s only Democratic state, Brown refused offers of aid from hundreds of churches, corporations, nations and states. He directed all emergency volunteers from outside the region to stay home, until specifically requested. The result? Many who rushed to help were stopped at gunpoint; the Red Cross was not let into New Orleans; and the federal government said it would arrest those who, without FEMA permission, tried to help.
The day after the hurricane, Captain Nora Tyson of the Navy warship Bataan returned from Gulf exercises and brought her boat, with its 600-bed hospital, to New Orleans. Before it could help, it was ordered to Mississippi, where three days later 60 medical personnel remained stranded on board, awaiting orders from FEMA. Over and over again, FEMA actually stopped truckloads of supplies, water, or ice, on some bureaucratic pretext or other.
Not only were federal officials callous, ignorant, inefficient, but Brinkley says they unfairly scapegoated Louisiana. Over 1,000 evacuees were flown out of the New Orleans Bowl after Katrina, before FEMA even figured out how to move a Porta Potti down I-10. While state officials and private citizens frantically rescued people, Karl Rove and President Bush withheld federal troops, needed to prevent violence, then used their vast public relations machine to blame Blanco and the New Orleans Police Department. Yet 900 officers had lost their homes, and another 400 were trapped in floodwaters. The only Democratic governor in flooded states, Blanco repeatedly requested federal aid five days before FEMA buses came. The lag at the federal level started after it was obvious who was affected most[not white, not rich, but] a voting bloc that the Republican Party had a motive to dispense.
Brinkley says FEMA also repeatedly double-crossed Blanco, daily promising aid, then not showing up. Two days after the hurricane, the vacationing President Bush would not take her phone calls. Battling alone to get food and water to the Superdome, she barely ate or rested. She did absolutely everything she could to help victims. Not once did she crack under the strain. Yet an unfriendly Republican White House seemed to be using Katrina to blame Blanco so that it could reshape the South’s only blue state.
Three points recur throughout The Great Deluge. First, the most helpless were the most neglected. Almost everyone left behind in retirement homes was in a wheelchair, many needing insulin or dialysis. Others were children, like 11-year-old Kache Grinds, left two days on the interstate with her nearly blind grandmother-among sick babies, dehydrated evacuees and elderly people dying of strokes and heart attacks.
A second theme is that the disaster brought out the best and the worst in people. While Pastor Willie Walker of Noah’s Ark Missionary Baptist Church was arranging out-of-town rides for his church’s poor and elderly and taking food to the stranded, President Bush was continuing his five-week vacation in Texas. While heroic nurses, doctors and staff at hospitals were hand-pumping ventilators, and trying to keep thousands of unevacuated patients alive, Dick Cheney was fly-fishing in Montana. While Dr. Ruth Berggren refused to leave her 18 charity patients with tuberculosis, AIDS and H.I.V., Condoleeza Rice was shoe-shopping on Fifth Avenue and going to a Broadway musical. While Lieutenant Governor Mitch Landrieu spent days rescuing Ninth-Ward residents in Fish and Wildlife boats, Mayor Ray Nagin holed up in the Hyatt, afraid either to dirty his clothes or appear among his people. Before he fled to Houston for a week, he used a precious generator to run Hyatt elevators, so he would not need to climb stairs.
While FEMA said it was impossible to get food, water and medicine to New Orleans, David Perez of California chartered a Boeing 737 to airlift supplies to the Gulf. So did many others, including corporations and states like California and New Mexico. While FEMA let scores of corpses rot at Memorial Medical Center, for five days after they were reported, CNN’s Michael Griffiths, covering Charity Hospital, said we couldn’t ethically just fly out our crew. CNN chartered eight helicopters to evacuate Charity patients. While FEMA was missing-in-action, citizens from Lake Charles, La., organized themselves into the ragtag Cajun Navy, brought their 35 boats east and rescued 4,000 New Orleans people, mostly from hospices and senior homes.
The third, most central, lesson of the book is the heroism of thousands of ordinary people. Despite her own brutal rape after the storm, Charmaine Neville organized food and rescue operations at an elementary school, led scores of victims through floodwaters to the dry French Quarter, borrowed an empty school bus, filled it with refugees and brought them to safety. Sara Roberts organized the Cajun Navy. Twenty-year-old Jabar Gibson commandeered the first bus to Houston, one he pulled from hundreds in the flooded city lot. Marooned in a New Orleans hotel, a San Francisco couple successfully called an out-of-town bus company, then complained: If we could get on the phone and get 10 buses, why couldn’t FEMA?
Six-year-old De’Mont-e Williams is my favorite hero. Because helicopters initially plucked only children from floodwaters, his parents put him aboard, handed him his five-month-old brother, then put him in charge of six other children on the helicopter. Dropped off at the I-10 overpass, De’Mont-e held his little brother, shepherded the crying children to a safe spot, then had them hold hands in a circle. After six hours, another helicopter took them to the New Orleans airport. Because D’Mont-e gave his name, address and phone number, as his parents had taught him, the family was soon reunited in Texas. A six-year-old demonstrated more leadership than the President of the United States.