Reading Sheri Fink’s Five Days at Memorial last month has given me a strange fascination for Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. When I saw Gary Rivlin’s Katrina: After the Flood listed on NetGalley for review, I leapt at the chance to read it. The book chronicles the nearly ten years that have passed since Katrina destroyed New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. I read it because I wanted to know what’s happened to the city since it’s faded from the national conscience. Katrina: After the Flood is written in roughly chronological order, detailing 2005 through about 2007 before leapfrogging up to the present. Rivlin, a journalist who has written for The New York Times and WIRED, among other national publications, follows dozens of New Orleanians from the mayor’s intimates to activists to bank CEOs to ordinary homeowners to show a full picture of the devastation of the city and its long, unfinished journey to recovery.
Rivlin’s account of post-Katrina New Orleans is not an optimistic one. In this account, Ray Nagin is a shell-shocked politician who changes his mind as often as he changes his shirts. (Nagin was later indicted on 20 accounts of corruption and started serving a prison sentence in 2014.) Even if Nagin had been an effective major, he would have been up against the deep racial and socioeconomic divide in the city. African Americans were and are a majority of the population in New Orleans, but they are disproportionately poor. They live in the lowest lying parts of the city. After Katrina wiped out the Lower Ninth Ward and New Orleans East, some rich, politically-connected New Orleanians (mostly white) worked to stymie efforts to rebuild the traditionally Black parts of the city. Several committees, including one appointed by Mayor Nagin, proposed plans to rebuild most of New Orleans while turning New Orleans East and the Lower Ninth into greenspace. Lance Hill, who studied white supremacist movements in the American South described some of the plans and ideas that floated around shortly after Katrina as evidence of an “‘exclusionist movement’—the efforts by some within the white community to prevent the city’s poor from returning. A large portion of the city’s black community had been given one-way tickets out of town to places hundreds, if not thousands, of miles away, often with nothing but a garbage bag of belongings” (Chapter 3*).
In addition to the racial and socioeconomic divides, I saw the rebuilding efforts running into a constant catch-22. In order to return to their neighborhoods and homes, New Orleanians needed utilities, police and fire protection, hospitals, schools, grocery stores, and especially jobs. But all of those things need people to justify the expense of repairing sections of sewer and water lines, power lines, and so on. Without a lot of money and a willingness to rebuild low-lying areas, the Lower Ninth and New Orleans East would literally rot away in the hot, humid Louisiana climate. According to Rivlin, this is exactly what happened. Almost ten years later, there are neighborhoods that have not completely recovered to their pre-Katrina population and economic levels.
Rivlin paints a portrait of relief efforts gone awry left and right, either because of corruption or because of conflict with other factions or because of impenetrable bureaucracy. The names at the heads of committees and organizations change constantly over the course of Katrina because so many people gave up. Martin Landrieu, who later became major, spoke to Rivlin and described dealing with all the funding groups as:
if [New Orleanians] were trapped in a real-life version of Groundhog Day, where they’d need to repeat the sequence until they got it exactly right. “This was a time when there’d be all these little restarts in every aspect of you life,” Landrieu said. The insurance company would claim it never received the stack of receipts you sent a month earlier, or “it was the insurance company calling to tell you, ‘Oh, yeah, your adjuster left, we need to assign you to a new person,” or it was calling the credit-card company for the third time because they still weren’t sending to the right address. You’d keep having the same conversation over and over.” (Chapter 18)
Katrina is nearly 500 pages of disillusionment.
It’s impossible to say if the disaster Katrina wrought was preventable. Later investigations would show that the levee system wasn’t up to the strength of the flooding the city experienced. The Lower Ninth Ward and New Orleans East are so far below sea level that they would inevitably flood in the levees and the city’s pumping stations failed. What happened after that, however, was a man-made disaster the compounded the damage of the hurricane.
Rivlin’s book is not a definitive account. He focuses on individuals rather than the city as a whole. One criticism I have is that there are so many people and places mentioned in Katrina that I felt lost if I had to take a break from the book. I think the book might have been more effective if Rivlin had narrowed his scope to a family or a few people or a single neighborhood. The story of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath is too big to tell all in one book, I feel.
Rivlin makes it clear that the New Orleans of today is not the same as the pre-Katrina city. Who knows if it ever will be. The demographics of the city have changed and the city still hasn’t regained its pre-storm population. The city is more expensive and even more reliant on tourism than ever. There are a few success stories in Katrina, but most of the stories here have unhappy endings.
I received a free copy of this ebook from NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review. It will be released 11 August 2015.
* Quotes from an advanced reader’s copy of the 2015 edition by Simon & Schuster.