There are few catastrophic events that I become fixated on, but Hurricane Katrina has probably been number one for me since it happened ten years ago last week. I visited NOLA (common abbreviation for the city) years before Katrina, and truly felt I was visiting the most unique city in the United States. So for the past ten years, I have been reading almost everything that has been published about the storm, with great anguish and fascination. There is a wealth of heart wrenching, beautiful, shocking and fantastic post-Katrina literature. It is a reminder that if I think I live in the “real” world, I don’t: an important thing to be reminded about. Here are just a few of my favorites.
This is a unique take on the disaster of Hurricane Katrina; one I would not have thought of. While most reporting attempted to portray the broad sweep of the hurricane’s devastation, Fink, herself a doctor, focused on one of New Orleans’ major hospitals. The first part of the book describes what happened (loss of power, flooded floors, lack of disaster planning, and shortage of personnel) right after the storm, the second half describes the legal morass when some medical personnel were accused of euthanizing patients. This story, not surprisingly, is about the moral dilemmas that surround massive disasters, and how difficult it is to make interconnected systems work when infrastructure breaks down. Fink does remain fairly neutral in her reporting, yet she frames the drama to particularly highlight those moral dilemmas. As in any disaster, there are heroes and villains, and people involved often shuttle between both, sometimes within seconds. I would not have wanted to try to make any of the decisions that those who were there had to make, but I am glad for this story, which brought me to a place of more humility and compassion for all involved. Fink won three awards for this title, and a Pulitzer Prize for the investigative reporting that led to this book.
One of the first, and probably best-known of the Katrina stories, Eggers portrays one family’s crisis after the hurricane. Least anyone still thinks the crisis was about weather, they will quickly learn otherwise. Zeitoun, a Syrian and trusted painting contractor in the city, does not leave with his family before the storm. A devout Muslim, he stays because feels he is “called upon by God” to watch over his own and others’ properties. The first days after the flood he rows around rescuing people and feeding dogs left trapped inside flooded houses. A few days later, heavily armed men burst into his house and arrest him “for looting”. After that, things get much worse for him and his family, who believe he has drowned in the flood. The authorities jail him in and pronounce him “al-Quaida”. When he is finally released, a month later, he has lost 20 pounds and is “a sad old man”, according to his wife. If there was ever an indictment of our government’s response to the hurricane, and the failure of the nation to protect its most vulnerable, this grim and illuminating saga would be it. It is also a memorable tribute to the tens of thousands of Muslims who have have made our country stronger and richer by practicing their faith by helping others.
For a wider perspective about New Orleans, read this multi-layered and complex story that focuses on the city itself, bookended by two major hurricanes (Betsy, in 1965, and Katrina in 2005). Baum has illustrated the culture of this city in an amazing book, by telling the stories of nine very diverse people who live there: a high school band teacher who is a mentor to at-risk kids from abusive homes, a street car line repairman turned museum curator, a racially prejudiced cop who sees the city as “one big misdemeanor lockup.” are only a few examples. All the characters share a passionate love of their city, with all its flaws (and there are many) and its richness. All want the city, which was on “life support” before the storm, to rebuild and renew. And there is a lot of that happening, but with glacially slow, spotty progress. Baum’s stories made me want to know what happened to each character, made me want to continue to follow their lives, their traumas and successes, just as I want to keep following the progress of this crazy, damaged and robust city.
Salvage the Bones, by Jesmyn Ward
In all fairness, I will tell you this is the second time I have highly recommended this book on my blog. Here is some of what I said the first time: such a rich, incredible story–I would put it in many categories. It describes the fiercely close relationship of a brothers and sister, living motherless in extreme proverty in the South just days before Hurricane Katrina. Daughter Esch finds herself pregnant at 15, not knowing who or whether to tell, let alone finding someone to help her. The description of the hurricane, and preparations for it and survival after rang vivid and true. Almost everything about the story was outside my own realm experience (except the love of their dog), but Ward immersed me in this world and stayed with me the whole time, helping me really see it in all its desperateness and fierce familial love. Ward’s writing took my breath away–I often paused, looked up and thought “where did she pull that from?” A well-deserved winner of the National Book Award in 2011.
A great graphic account of the hurricane, with stories of a variety of people who experienced Katrina very differently. Neufield is a talent that I had not read, and his vivid illustrations make it almost like watching a documentary. Because of the realistic and unique drawings (and colors!) the stories of these six people come alive in a way they would not in ordinary b & w words. One family goes to the super dome with thousands of others, only to barely survive unbelievable horrors, not to mention the heat. Another is a party-time doctor from the Quarter, who keeps the patter and drinks flowing throughout the storm, and also manages to attend to medical needs of folks in the neighborhood without seeming to wrinkle his bespoke suit. My favorite story was about a convenience store owner and his friend, who stay to “guard their property” only to nearly drown on the roof of the store. All the stories are true. All are unique and astounding.
I love Burke’s novels; I learn about a culture so different from mine, and there’s great mystery writing thrown in. And few fiction authors are as well-versed in New Orleans culture as Burke. The book’s understory is the aftermath of Katrina, obviously: the lawlessness, racism and political chicanery that most of his stories explore, yet not in such depth. A number of reviewers think this (#16 in Burke’s Dave Robicheaux crime fiction) is his best novel in the series to date, because it is so deeply felt and personal. This only adds to Burke’s particular style of writing: he concentrates more on the interior lives of his unruly and eclectic assortment of characters rather than the chaos of the hurricane, effectively using the storm and its horrors as a backdrop (albeit a very vivid one). If you have not yet read a ‘Dave Robicheaux’ mystery, this is your chance to meet many colorful characters, set inside one of the world’s most unique cities. Robicheaux is a rather pragmatic, stand-up guy, a practicing Catholic who also embraces much of the supernatural aspects of his Cajun culture. I’ll bet you’ll want more of the series after you finish this one.