Today I want to talk about a couple of Katrina books I’ve read recently. DISASTER Hurricane Katrina and the Failure of Homeland Security provided a very different perspective and proved very enlightening. The book begins with a discussion of “Hurricane Pam” a training exercise first developed in May 1995 and largely ignored until July 2004 when a large contingent of local, state and federal disaster officials participated in a week-long dry run, discussing in detail the actions they would take if a category 5 hurricane hit New Orleans dead-on. While widely regarded as helpful, the exercise demonstrated a number of serious short-comings, all of which the FEMA participants assured the locals the feds would be prepared to address.
The book goes on to give a somewhat detailed explanation of New Orleans’ unique geography and vulnerability and a history of the city’s complex and highly political flood protection systems. So far, standard fare. But then it gets interesting, moving on to present a history of FEMA and telling me some things I didn’t know.
Created from an alphabet soup of other agencies FEMA has had a mission dealing with both natural disasters and what has come to be called terrorism. In the Reagan years, the natural disasters side of FEMA very much took a back seat to an operation that spent incredible sums of money preparing for extraordinarily unlikely scenarios on the order of keeping the US government operating in the event of a planet-wide nuclear holocaust. (visions of Uncle Ronnie Ray Gun stumping for Star Wars) The doomsday focus continued through the first Bush administration and then Hurricane Andrew hit Florida in 1992, FEMA proved useless, many Floridians suffered horribly and in turn voted out Pappy Bush.
The Clinton years brought about great change. Bill appointed a guy from Arkansas with no formal education at all, who nonetheless was quite skilled at emergency management. He canned the doomsday spook operations, focused on providing post-disaster service as well as working with local governments on advance planning to reduce and mitigate the effects of disasters, and was widely praised on both sides of the aisle.
Then along came Junior and 9/11. Anything related to the “war on terror” was a slam dunk for beaucoup funding, the “black ops” section of FEMA was back with a vengeance and disaster prevention, planning and service again took a low funded back seat. The Reagan Years redux. Katrina, the authors argue was not “the perfect storm”, but only an ordinary hurricane that became such a monumental catastrophe only due to the Bushie’s years of short changing both FEMA and the Corps of Engineers responsible for maintaining the system of levees and flood walls.
The book then details the widely reported incompetence shown by the feds in the days and weeks following the storm. While this section provided little that I had not already heard many times in the reporting as it happened, it gave a unique perspective of some of the officials who seemed to display such stunning ineptitude. While by no means giving Michael Brown a pass, it made a good case that the FEMA director was more scape-goat than villain. I would definitely consider this book worth reading if you’ve an interest in understanding better how the so-called “war on terror” has decimated the government’s ability to handle its most basic responsibilities to provide for the common welfare.
Another excellent Katrina book I’ve read recently is The Great Deluge, which follows the stories of several dozen people in the New Orleans area in the days immediately before and after Katrina. This book gives the best sense I have yet gotten of what it was really like to be in New Orleans during that horrible week, which was quite different than the impressions I got watching it happen on tv. In contrast to the title above, this book is completely limited to a time frame of about a week and discusses only the events until the evacuation was completed the Saturday morning following the storm. I was particularly taken with the story of the doctors at Baptist Hospital (It’s actually called something else now but I forget what and will always know it as Baptist.) A doctor and several nurses were later charged with homicide when dead patients were found to have been injected with morphine and other strong drugs. (That these people were seriously ill to begin with and were left in a sweltering, un-air conditioned hospital for nearly a week and may well have been given drugs for anxiety and pain because they were suffering severe anxiety and pain seemed to escape the prosecutor.) There has been some criticism of the author’s methods and some questioning of the accuracy of some of the reporting, but it seemed credible to me and was a good read.
And for any who are worried that this blog is going to be all New Orleans or all about Katrina, be assured I have a wide and eclectic range of reading interests and expect to write about all kinds of books here.
Until next time, keep turning those pages and support your local public library.