AFTER Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast last August, television viewers around the world watched a long phantasmagoria of human beings in agony -- desperate New Orleanians clinging to rooftops, wading through murky floodwaters, wandering along expressways, dying outside the convention center under a blazing sun. More than 1,500 people perished in Louisiana and Mississippi, but the toll could have been far higher. In the most compelling passages of his new book, "The Great Deluge," historian Douglas Brinkley tells about the exertions of average folks who kept thousands more people alive.
On the Mississippi coast, Michael Veglia and four friends scrambled to boost a family of strangers into a tree as Katrina's storm surge overwhelmed their home. In Lake Charles, La., 200 miles west of New Orleans, lawyer Sara Roberts organized a flotilla of volunteer boaters to rush to the aid of flood victims. After the National Guard abandoned New Orleans' Charity Hospital because of reports of sniper activity, Dr. Ruth Berggren evacuated AIDS patients with the help of a well-connected friend in Texas. Recounting these and a host of similarly harrowing tales, Brinkley captures the frenzy Katrina caused as it bore down on New Orleans and for days after making landfall on Monday, Aug. 29. The author, a professor at Tulane University in New Orleans, has published biographies of John Kerry, Rosa Parks, Dean Acheson and Henry Ford. "My hope in writing this book," Brinkley writes, "is to give historical dignity to the people [who] ... seized the moment, however surreal, and took charge."
Fair enough; this hurricane created plenty of unlikely heroes. Yet Brinkley's book can't quite decide what it wants to be: a study of regular people in extraordinary situations, a polemic against indecisive politicians and indifferent bureaucracies or just an elephant-sized synthesis of the voluminous literature about Katrina.
Brinkley's narrative opens on Saturday, Aug. 27, as the Gulf Coast girds for a Category 4 or greater storm, and ends the following Saturday as "the dark veil of Katrina started to lift." The chaos and misery that enveloped New Orleans that week posed a dire threat to the existence of an iconic city and signaled the finite nature of U.S. power, even a rip in the fabric of civilization. Works as diverse as geographer Jared Diamond's book "Collapse" and Steven Spielberg's remake of "War of the Worlds" have explored what happens when society begins to unravel. A historian's view of Katrina ought to be illuminating: How did authorities react differently from, say, those in Los Angeles after the 1994 Northridge earthquake or those in San Francisco in 1906? Which aspects of the emergency response might have complicated New Orleans' recovery?
But Brinkley doesn't provide that sort of analysis. He does offer pungent details that most news organizations were too genteel to dwell on: bodies laid out in the hallways and the chapel of Memorial Medical Center; looters defecating on counters and cash registers in the businesses they invaded. He describes a thuggish, trigger-happy New Orleans Police Department and shows the friction between the National Guard and the Army units trying to impose order and save lives. When National Guard Lt. Col. Bernard McLaughlin tries to get evacuees to form neat lines in front of the convention center, Army Gen. Russel Honore dresses him down publicly.
In this and other instances, Brinkley is happy to offer his opinion. "Without question," he flatly declares, "General Honore was right." Since Katrina, Brinkley has appeared dozens of times on MSNBC's "Scarborough Country" and other talking-head shows. In "The Great Deluge," he interrupts an engaging narrative again and again with the worst elements of TV punditry -- offering his 20/20 hindsight and pop psychology, and failing to focus on the bigger picture.
Inevitably, Brinkley delves into the lumbering reaction of local, state and federal agencies to the impending storm and later to the flooding in New Orleans. President Bush, who peered down on the flooded city from the safety of Air Force One, was disconnected from the events in New Orleans, Brinkley's book suggests. His portrayal of Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco is more sympathetic, but she still comes across as having been overwhelmed by events. In other words, "The Great Deluge" largely echoes the conventional wisdom of that first week. That isn't surprising. Although Brinkley conducted dozens of interviews, the book draws heavily on news coverage from late August and early September.