ED GORDON, host:
…must now pull his city out of chaos. But first, he must worry about a new hurricane season. That means taking an honest look at the old New Orleans and learning lessons from last year's tragedy.
Tulane University History Professor Douglas Brinkley's new book, The Great Deluge, documents Katrina's landfall and the ensuing crisis. The author talks about his want to help turned into the beginnings of the book.
Professor DOUGLAS BRINKELY (History, Tulane University): My heart couldn't just sit there in Houston at a hotel watching all this unfold on television. So I came back in and worked the rescue boats. I had a press pass, and I took detailed notes of everything that I saw in the days following Katrina.
And I was - decided to do an oral history project. I started interviewing people at the Astrodome in Houston, but also around New Orleans and getting telephone numbers. And I decided at some juncture shortly after the storm that I really wanted to focus a book on the one week - Saturday, August 27th - when the big decision was made: do I evacuate or do I not - don't go? and what decisions government made at all levels. And I end the book a week later, when the 82nd Airborne comes into New Orleans and the crisis, at least that first phase of it, is starting to be pacified and we're heading into a new post-Katrina phase.
FARAI CHIDEYA reporting:
What did you see when you first came back into the city after evacuating and decided to work the rescue boats? Give us an example of what your days were like.
Prof. BRINKELY: It was pitch black at night. You were amazing what no electricity does. It creates a kind of a medieval feel in the town, and you just hear noises and maybe see a light flicker in the distance somewhere. So there's an eerie quality. But what angered me is how many people were left behind, how many seniors that I had to help get out of buildings into boats, who wouldn't leave because they refused to abandon their pet, their dog or their cat. How many people that families just left because they had Alzheimer's or dementia. People that were frightened and poor that had no transportation. No busses ever came. Nobody gave them an opportunity to leave.
I heard police officers question first-responders, people going into boats saving people, why do you care about those fire ants? People in uniform were refusing to help people in need, where many of the so-called misfits or outcasts - unemployed people, bartenders, clerks - they jumped to the occasion and became local heroes. I call one group of them the NOLA Homeboys in my book, and another one is Mamma D and the Soul Patrol. She was an old NAACP organizer who got a group of youths out there to go into the projects and help people once the levees broke.
CHIDEYA: Let me read back a passage that you wrote in this book.
(Reading) “Every time the Bush administration and the state of Louisiana hesitated, lawyered up, and read the fine print of homeland security procedure, an American died prematurely. One of the biggest lessons of Katrina was that in times of disaster, bad bureaucracy plus presidential hesitation equals corpses. That is not shy language.
Prof. BRINKELY: No. And it's absolutely true. First off, President Bush went to California. While he was there, he played air guitar, and while people were dying in the Gulf south, he seemed detached from what was happening. He did a fly-over in Air Force One, never put his boot heels on the ground - never smelled the death that week, went back to Washington, and the big debate was that every department - whether it was Homeland Security, the White House, the State of Louisiana - they all were wondering who's responsible. Get the lawyers to look at it. Don't send provisions down until we make sure who's going to be paying for them. And that bureaucratic inertia slowed down the rescue process.
You know, when you're the captain of a ship, and somebody screams man overboard, you can't radio in to shore and decide who's legally responsible for saving that person. They'll drown. And that, unfortunately, is a metaphor I think that occurred with the stark exception of the U.S. Coast Guard, and another more unsung group called Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries Group. The conservationists with boats had put their boats right outside New Orleans, and they immediately went in and did a great job. But by and large, the federal government in particular let the people of the Gulf south down.
CHIDEYA: So, the Times Picayune did a big series on The Big One, looking ahead to what became Hurricane Katrina, outlining the failures in different systems that could allow for a disaster like this. And, not much was done. And then Katrina happened.
And now you're talking about new storms, severe storms that could last for years. Is New Orleans prepared to face that? Is the Gulf prepared to face that?
Prof. BRINKELY: No, it is not. Let's make that very clear. I'm sitting here talking to you from New Orleans, a city that has no schools, that has an electrical grid that, with a strong tropical wind will be out, blacked out for days. There's garbage and debris everywhere, and with the exception of the, what they call the Sliver by the River - French quarter, Garden District, Uptown - the outlying areas of greater New Orleans are a disaster zone right now.
We still have hundreds of thousands of displaced people, and we don't have either the levees being built properly, the floodgates being built properly to even sustain a Category 1 hurricane right now. So it is the summer of hope and prayer in New Orleans that we just can dodge the big bullet and get the Army Corps of Engineers back to building in the fall. In the whole cycle of a year, we might be able to at least be able to at least have levees to protect the city for a Category three hurricane.
The big debate down here is, why not build them to five? And it's become almost a cliché now, but the notion that the Dutch could save land from the sea by building in the Netherlands their extraordinary system of dykes and levees -and the same with a city like Venice, which is essentially underwater but is a world class city of antiquity, really - New Orleans should be treated the same way, meaning we've got to put money into the infrastructure of the greater New Orleans area.
But right now, there's no leadership coming nationally, demanding that there be a Marshall Plan for the Gulf south. So the repairs efforts down here are coming in in trickles, but we've never prioritized this the way I think great presidents would have, and said we're not going to lose one of our - perhaps one of the most beloved American city all over the world, and such a creative culture that's developed here.
CHIDEYA: What's your vision for the new New Orleans?
Prof. BRINKELY: That we finally understand that jazz was the great gift to the world in the 20th Century. It's a freedom music that came out of blues and out of the struggle from the middle passage through slavery. That the cuisine in New Orleans is world class and famous, that our architecture is irreplaceable. And that we have to care about culture in America, not just business. That we have a sacred obligation to make sure that New Orleans exists for future generations.
In the same way, we have to protect the Grand Canyon or Yellowstone from mining or mineral exploitation. We have to protect this great urban center and not just treat it as a ghost town or Cajun Atlantis, as some people are calling it.
CHIDEYA: Douglas Brinkley, thank you so much.
Prof. BRINKELY: Thank you.
GORDON: That was NPR's Farai Chideya speaking with Douglas Brinkley, Professor of History at Tulane University. His new book is called The Great Deluge. To hear Brinkley read an excerpt from his book, as well as an extended version of this interview, go to npr.org.
(Soundbite of music)
GORDON: Coming up, more on Ray Nagin's surprising reelection in New Orleans, and the future of that storm-wrecked city. We'll discuss that topic and more on our Roundtable. Plus, a salute to a dance legend.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.