Race, Class, Disaster; Continent: North America

Katrina: After the Flood by Gary Rivlin

  • Alternately maddening and inspiring, the story of the American phenomenon I can only call the “clusterflood”
  • 462 pages (419 pages through the epilogue, which is worth reading)

This is a book I’ve been waiting for. Not this title or author specifically, but I’ve been waiting for years so opinions could gel, tempers could cool, and someone could get his or her head around Hurricane Katrina and the mess it left behind.

In 2005, cable news was the stream of adult conversation I cherished in the isolation of a new neighborhood with a new baby. That August, we all saw some pretty shocking images from inside a first-world country. Images of people stranded on rooftops, rescued in airboats or Zodiacs, and later, the “Katrina tattoo” of so many ruined homes. Stories of the suffering, the economics, and the politics of New Orleans’ enormous disaster followed for months. This white, Yankee stay-at-home mom watched it all from air-conditioned Pennsylvania, wondering…what the hell was going on down there?

Hurricane Demographics

The hurricane itself was weaker than expected. If the levees had held, author Gary Rivlin tells us, history would have recorded much less about Katrina. When the levees collapsed, parts of New Orleans lying at or below sea level were essentially destroyed with flooding—the Lower Ninth Ward that we heard so much about in the media only one among a few. So, the story of Hurricane Katrina is really a story about a flood that destroyed the properties and livelihoods of not just the economically disadvantaged, but of plenty of working-class and middle-class people who had been doing fine pre-Katrina, even if they lacked much savings.

Most of the people from those low-ground neighborhoods who could get out fled to Houston, Dallas, Baton Rouge or other cities where friends or family could spare some space—not everyone was in the Superdome, despite what cable news coverage might have implied. Most people from those neighborhoods were black. Some New Orleans residents lived in high ground and had a generator, so staying to ride out the storm and its aftermath was an option. Most of them were white. When it finally stopped raining and the flood damage had been done, a huge exodus of New Orleans’ black population had occurred. You couldn’t have engineered a catastrophe more likely to divide the city along racial lines, and this division is most of the story we get from Rivlin.

Now What?

Author Gary Rivlin feels New Orleans’ charismatic mayor Ray Nagin was in over his head with work more demanding than lunching and handshaking, and he’s pretty hard on him throughout the book. While Nagin had been well-liked by many pre-Katrina, he proved unable to unify his town or advocate for its recovery without creating further problems.

Inadequate leadership led to too many cooks stirring the soup. The recovery job had millions of messy, expensive and related tasks, and not everyone could even agree on what the tasks were, exactly. New Orleans’ gentry (largely white) envisioned a renaissance in some of the worst parts of town now that all the shotgun cottages had washed away. A nice, public green space in the Lower Ninth, for example, made more sense to many than did rebuilding along the failed levees. From a strictly engineering standpoint, one can see the argument. If rebuilding post-Katrina were a computer game, then you’d probably do it. On the other hand, if you owned that land—particularly if had inherited it as a generational family home, as many there had—you almost certainly didn’t want to hear about your property being appropriated by the government for a city park.

Plans changed and toes got stepped on, funding showed up or dried up, and displaced people got moved into—and then out of—FEMA trailers with their own set of problems. Rivlin details the colossal mess of acronyms and good intentions that prevented real progress for a period measured in years. Frustrated New Orleans residents who had fled began to take permanent jobs, enroll their kids in schools and generally put down roots elsewhere. Those determined to stay began grassroots efforts to recover their neighborhoods, and these are the people who made (and are still making at time of writing) the most difference.

Heroes and Villains

Rivlin’s own anger over the post-Katrina mess fuels the book, and no reader can miss it. He covered New Orleans after the storm as a reporter. However, he does document the facts supporting his opinions well. While he makes clear that Mayor Ray Nagin was overwhelmed, I do wonder how many mayors in major American cities would have done much better in the face of a disaster on a similar scale (spoiler alert: Nagin had some jail time related to his conduct as mayor…I’m not excusing that).

Rivlin appreciates the private people who contributed to rebuilding the city. For example, Alden MacDonald of Liberty Bank serves a largely black, working-class or middle-class population with home loans. He and his board kept this population in mind during the years following Hurricane Katrina, and Rivlin also describes the struggle to remain solvent he endured in the meantime.

Other people set up neighborhood centers with equipment one could borrow, file complaints about villainous contractors or fill out forms for government funding. Volunteers from out of town also slept in these centers in the meantime. Plenty of people fill this book by name, but Rivlin portraits enough of them to give a sense of the broad range of people sufficiently invested in New Orleans to want to see it come back to life.

Food for Thought

One of my favorite aspects of this book is Rivlin’s choice to cover one particular family of middle-class black sisters who all started in the same part of New Orleans. Before the hurricane and flooding, they and their own households typically met for large gatherings at their mother’s stately home in a higher-elevation part of town. These women met often to shop and visit, remaining close.

When the storm happened, they and their households fled to Baton Rouge to take over one whole floor of a hotel for an extended time, and that’s when they began to make some difficult decisions. Some of their homes needed more extensive remodeling than others, their children were at different phases of education, and money was tighter for some than others. One sister took flak from the others about considering Baton Rouge as a permanent residence.

I’ve thought about their large family and their deep connections to New Orleans and to one another often since finishing the book. Keeping this family’s story alive throughout the book prevented the large scale of government decisions to seem detached from their real impact, and it was a brilliant move on Rivlin’s part.

Image: Abandoned home after Hurricane Katrina. Photo by Olympus C740uz and posted as public domain on http://maxpixel.freegreatpicture.com/New-Orleans-Open-Doors-La-Hurricane-Katrina-961226.

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