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Katrina Books Shed New Light on Disaster

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Katrina Books Shed New Light on Disaster

Katrina & Beyond

Katrina Books Shed New Light on Disaster

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New Orleans author Jason Berry was trapped in Covington, Louisiana, north of Lake Pontchartrain during Hurricane Katrina. Fallen trees blocked the road. There was no water or electricity. He made his way back to New Orleans seven weeks later, where he found his home intact.

We asked Berry to take on a different tidal surge: the first wave of Katrina books. Here's his review.

JASON BERRY reporting:

If you saw the television coverage, you may ask, what more to know about Katrina?

A lot, in fact. About global warming, how cities live or die, the science of levees, and stunning human dramas of a great city changed by memories of the flood.

In The Storm, Ivor van Heerden of the LSU Hurricane Center, writes this about ocean heat: Katrina, on her journey across the Gulf of Mexico, generated energy equivalent to 100,000 atomic bombs.

Van Heerden hammers the Army Corps of Engineers for failure to maintain the levee system. He's produced a counter story to Katrina's wrath: human error.

The mistakes of that federal agency caused massive flooding. Heerden's prose, often clunky, probes the engineering debacle like a guy with a water cannon. I say, go, Ivor, go.

So how did the country that put men on the moon fail to rescue flood survivors in the Superdome? That question haunts me yet, as it does historian Douglas Brinkley of Tulane University. Brinkley's The Great Deluge is a 700-page epic. He tracks the first week in gripping episodes: people trapped in water, others looting, first responders, politicians, journalists, and ordinary folk at their best and worst.

Brinkley scorns the failure of elected officials, from President Bush to Governor Blanco to Mayor Nagin. Yet the book sags with redundant passages and embarrassing factual errors.

Brinkley's portrait of New Orleans' mayor Ray Nagin is bitter. When he mocks Nagin for taking too long in a hot shower on day four in Air Force One, I thought of that dirty swimming pool where I had to bathe and how we listened on battery powered radio as Nagin rebuked Mr. Bush at the time. Flying over in Air Force One does not do it justice, he exploded. Nagin seemed like the last man at the bottom of America, shaking his fist at the gods.

Brinkley lays on too much blame. Nagin did not get my vote this past May, but I know why he was reelected. A majority identified with Nagin's struggle and forgave his blunders.

In Breech of Faith, Jed Horne writes, rarely does history grade a presidency so quickly or so harshly. It's the best of the Katrina books thus far. A veteran Times-Picayune editor, Horne has pathos in the survivor stories and a shrewd eye for detail, as when water moccasins sunbathe on a city roof.

Horne treats the city as organism: the pulsing joy streams of life before, the blood ties of so many who fled, the cutting wounds as Congress stalled on a relief plan. The set pieces on power brokers shimmer with irony, as when Bob Harvey, an ex-potentate of the Parrish Levee Board, says, but if you want to kill the Orleans Levee Board, that might not be such a bad idea.

Indeed, that idea might lead Louisiana to emulate the Dutch with a state-of-the-art flood-defense system. Those stakes are spelled out in Path of Destruction by John McQuaid and Mark Schleifstein, reporters of The Times-Picayune.

They write, in the Netherlands flood defense equaled national defense. In the United States, it was just another local issue to be hashed out in subcommittee hearings.

There you have it.

For now, as storm season heats up, the levees are still vulnerable. The governor has sent state troopers and National Guard to help the beleaguered police after a rash of drug killings.

You may ask, why do people live there? Because, as these books lay bare, we just can't help loving the place.

SIEGEL: Jason Berry's upcoming book is Last of the Red Hot Papas, a novel about Louisiana politics. There's more at

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