Documenting the 'Great Deluge' of New Orleans

Cover

Forced out of New Orleans after Katrina hit last year, historian Douglas Brinkley, a professor at Tulane University, soon returned. He helped with rescue efforts and immediately began the task of collecting oral histories of the catastrophe.

The result is his new book, The Great Deluge, which offers a multi-perspective account of the storm and its aftermath. Brinkley is the author of three other historical narratives, including Tour of Duty.

Excerpt: 'The Great Deluge'

Chapter Two: Shouts and Whispers

In Washington, D.C. , Michael D. Brown, the director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, received a briefing on Saturday from the National Hurricane Center on the severity of Hurricane Katrina and the likelihood that it would indeed make a direct hit on New Orleans. Like Nagin, Brown responded by letting the day pass. He didn't send emergency-response management teams to the region, normally a reflex action for a FEMA director in the face of potential problems. He didn't send hundreds of buses to the periphery of the Gulf Coast, within easy post-storm striking distance. He sent two public affairs officials and waited to see what would happen. "When FEMA finally did show up, everybody was angry because all they had was a Web site and a flyer," Senator Mark Pryor (D-Arkansas) told the Select Bipartisan Committee to Investigate the Preparation for and Response to Hurricane Katrina. "They didn't have any real resources that they could give."

Because the advance plans in Louisiana were nebulous, where they existed at all, hour after hour on Saturday evening was devoted to telephone calls between officials, none of whom seemed to be moving at the same speed. Governor Blanco stepped up to try to advance the preparations. She had proclaimed a state of emergency on the statewide level the day before. On Saturday, she wrote to President George W. Bush, requesting that he declare a federal state of emergency in southeastern Louisiana. The letter was a formality, written according to a prescribed text by which governors exercised emergency provisions in the federal-state relationship.

Blanco even neglected to omit prompts suggested by the federal government for such letters. On the second page, Blanco's letter ran, "I request Direct Federal assistance for work and services to save lives and protect property. (a) List any reasons State and local government cannot perform or contract for performance (if applicable). (b) Specify the type of assistance requested." On the latter subject, Blanco filled in: "I am specifically requesting emergency protective measures, direct Federal Assistance, Individual and Household Program (IHP) assistance, Special Needs Program assistance, and debris removal."

Blanco's requests were as boilerplate as the rest of her letter. The Individual and Household Program and Special Needs assistance both referred to FEMA programs that provided grant money to those displaced by a disaster. It was right that she included them in her pro forma list. Both, however, were to be activated well after Katrina passed. So was debris removal.

A suddenly overwhelmed Blanco failed to indicate that the region needed federal help with transportation in advance of the storm, and rescue boats immediately thereafter. She failed to fully abide by Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz's famous 1945 warning to future leaders on the grave perils of hesitation: "Preoccupation with the job at hand, or a desire not to disturb the skipper, should never result in disregard of a rapidly falling barometer."

If Blanco's message to Bush had been an emphatic letter or frantic telephone call, and not merely a legal form—if it had actually communicated what wasn't happening in Louisiana (i.e., evacuation)—various U.S. government agencies might have mobilized more quickly. Just as New Orleans wasn't properly communicating with Baton Rouge, Baton Rouge wasn't properly communicating to Washington, D.C. There was a chain of failures.

"The federal government does not have the authority to intervene in a state emergency without the request of a governor," Bob Williams, a Washington State legislator from the district most devastated by the eruption of Mount St. Helens in 1980, wrote in The Wall Street Journal, helping readers understand post-Katrina relief. "President Bush declared an emergency prior to Katrina hitting New Orleans, so the only action needed for Federal assistance was for Governor Blanco to request the specific type of

assistance she needed. She failed to send a timely request for specific aid. In addition, unlike the governors of New York, Oklahoma, and California in past disasters, Governor Blanco failed to take charge of the situation and ensure that the state emergency operation facility was in constant contact with Mayor Nagin and FEMA."

Blanco did send a request on Saturday, two days too late. Besides late timing, it was not much of a letter and not much of a list. President Bush, who was vacationing at his 1,583-acre ranch in Crawford, Texas, responded in turn to the governor's form letter. In a legally correct fashion, he complied with her request for federal assistance, authorizing

FEMA "to coordinate all disaster relief efforts which have the purpose of alleviating the hardship and suffering caused by the emergency on the local population."

Unfortunately, FEMA Director Brown wasn't entirely convinced of the urgency. After receiving notification of the president's action, he released a statement that didn't even mention the importance of evacuation for Gulf Coast residents.

"There's still time to take action now," his Saturday afternoon statement read, "but you must be prepared and take shelter and other emergency precautions immediately."

Governor Blanco wasn't as passive as the hours went by. She attended local news conferences in both Orleans and Jefferson parishes that Saturday, encouraged New Orleanians to go door-to-door to persuade neighbors to flee, and held a conference call with Louisiana officials (including sixty-five legislators) in the coastal parishes trying to coordinate last-minute programs. "There was certainly a sense of urgency about the situation," Blanco's communications officer, Bob Mann, explained. "We knew this was perhaps the Big One. This was an urgent situation. I think she communicated that pretty well."

One person who really catapulted Governor Blanco into action mode that Saturday was Cedric Richmond, the president of the black caucus in the Louisiana legislature. He spent the entire weekend telling everybody in New Orleans East, part of the Ninth Ward, to "get the hell out." Only thirty-one years old, he had grown up in NOE, throwing rocks into Lake Ponchartrain as a kid, and later hanging out at the video arcade at Lake Forest Plaza. Richmond was a cautious lawyer and workaholic; his great indulgence was eating baby back ribs dripping in fat at the City Club once a week. On Saturday morning he had attended a Little League game in Gorretti Playground, with about eight or nine hundred people in attendance.

"It was incredible," Richmond recalled. "Because the mayor's warning was so soft, nobody was taking Katrina seriously. Baseball. That's what they were up to. So that night I went from barroom to barroom saying, 'Y'all need to go.' "

When Richmond told Blanco that afternoon about the blasé attitude at the ball game, the governor grew alarmed. Telephoning her assistant chief of staff, Johnny Anderson, she requested that all African-American ministers in below-sea-level areas dedicate their Sunday sermons to the need to evacuate at once. They would be called "pray and pack" sessions.

"She really tried to help," Richmond recalled. "But Nagin just ignored everything. He should have called a mandatory evacuation earlier; the governor was having to do his job."

Books Featured In This Story

The Great Deluge
The Great Deluge

Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans, And the Mississippi Gulf Coast

by Douglas Brinkley

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