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Historian's eye on the storm

As Tulane's Douglas Brinkley aided victims, he gathered stories that will become a book.

October 28, 2005|Martin Miller | Times Staff Writer

HOUSTON — It's one thing to write about history as Douglas Brinkley has done for more than two decades, often to much fanfare and acclaim. It's quite another to be swept up with your young family by its fast-moving and unpredictable currents.

With Hurricane Katrina bearing down on the Gulf Coast, the 44-year-old Tulane University professor decided to stay in New Orleans not to bear witness to a national tragedy -- although that's precisely what happened -- but simply to avoid getting stuck in bumper-to-bumper evacuation traffic.

Along with his wife and their two children, then both younger than 2, Brinkley's plan was to "evacuate vertically" into a riverfront high-rise -- designed by his father-in-law -- that was built to withstand a Category 5 hurricane. And there from the 15th floor, the telegenic historian, a popular guest on cable news programs, watched as his adopted home became the news story of the year.

Huddled as he was with his wife and children in a rented room with pieces of the high-rise's roof beginning to fly off, Brinkley could have scarcely known at the time that the catastrophe would cast him and the nation into a series of surreal, terrifying and even enraging events that history may some day judge as pivotal in resetting the country's social and political agendas.

As Katrina hit landfall in New Orleans, Brinkley saw the mighty waters of the Mississippi River run backward as they retreated before the immense power of the onrushing storm surge from the Gulf of Mexico. He saw the windows of the downtown Hyatt Regency pop out like holes in computer punch cards. In the coming days he observed police officers tremble with fear, trucks loaded with supplies for storm victims be turned back by federal officials, and something he thought he'd never see in a major metropolitan area -- completely dark and deserted freeways.

"It was like a B-grade post-apocalyptic movie," said Brinkley at a restaurant in Houston, where Tulane University as well as his family have since relocated. "I was zooming with my family, the wife, the kids, the dogs down an empty freeway, and there was so much destruction all around."

And here is where his personal tale gets stranger, Brinkley explained. He is, well, friends with actor and sometime activist Sean Penn, and the unlikely pair soon found themselves on a CNN boat with a clergyman from Noah's Ark Missionary Baptist Church rescuing flood victims from the roofs and treetops of New Orleans.

The stranded "would be panicking and suddenly the lightbulb would go on," recalled Brinkley, a prolific author of popular works on such diverse subjects as John Kerry, Rosa Parks and Henry Ford. "They were like, 'Get me out of here, get me out of here.... [Hey, are you] Sean Penn?' I think it actually reassured them."

It all sounds like a movie, but actually it's going to be a book.

Analysis and oral histories

It's called "The Great Deluge" and Brinkley expects it to hit the bookstands around Aug. 29, 2006, the one-year anniversary of Katrina's hitting New Orleans. Published by William Morrow, the book will be filled with hundreds of oral histories as well as a critical analysis of the local, state and federal response to the crisis.

"There's going to be a cottage industry of books about Katrina almost like a Gettysburg or an Antietam," said Brinkley, who put aside a project on Theodore Roosevelt and conservation to focus exclusively on the upcoming book. "It will be reinterpreted in books for decades, even centuries.

"There's no way it's going to be definitive," added Brinkley about his upcoming book. "But hopefully it might be an opening salvo in the scholarship."

Brinkley makes clear he won't be, as he said, using the "I" word. As such, the book will be leaving a great many personal screen-worthy moments on the cutting room floor, so to speak. For instance, the bizarre televised CNN interview in a flooded New Orleans street, featuring Soledad O'Brien with Brinkley and Penn both calling for more aid to the stricken city.

In a pairing odd enough to be a premise for a Hollywood cop buddy picture, the award-winning historian and the Oscar-winning actor became friends recently after Penn rented a home in Brinkley's New Orleans neighborhood while shooting a remake of Robert Penn Warren's "All the King's Men." The two had a mutual friend in Hunter S. Thompson, and Brinkley is knowledgeable about Huey Long, the former Louisiana governor on whom the character Penn portrays in the upcoming film is based.

"Sean has always liked New Orleans," said Brinkley, who notes that the actor has "NOLA" tattooed on his arm. "He likes those Charles Bukowski, Tenderloin, misfit, outcast characters that the city has so many of."

After driving his family out of New Orleans before the levees broke, Brinkley heard from Penn. The Marin County resident was so moved by the televised scenes of suffering, he wanted to go to New Orleans -- and by the way did Brinkley want to come along?

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