- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 17, 2006


By Douglas Brinkley

William Morrow,

$29.95, 716 pages


Because Hurricane Katrina is such a recent memory and was so wrought with emotional and physical damage, a book about it could be a risky proposition.

There would be great temptation for a whiny, maudlin and soap opera-like account that adds little to the discourse.

Fortunately, Douglas Brinkley has produced a wonderful and infinitely readable work that is nothing like that. “The Great Deluge” paints a vivid picture of what happened, and contains profiles of the heroes and villains in the Gulf Coast region during those horrific days last year.

Mr. Brinkley, a history professor at Tulane University in New Orleans and a native of that city, has written a book that is one part narrative, one part oral history and one part finger pointing. Though he does take a myriad of political leaders to task, “The Great Deluge” is not a diatribe.

While the facts about the damage are well known, as are the reports of lack of preparation by a range of government officials at all levels, Mr. Brinkley is able to put a human face on it all. He notes, for example, that even as some elderly residents were being evacuated from nursing homes they had certain priorities that might seem a bit unusual:

“As the hospital staff was prepared to evacuate the nursing-home residents across the street, where they were promised a bus ride out of the flood zone, one of the elderly residents was too proper to allow her standards to relax, even in the face of disaster. ‘If I am going on a bus,’ she said. ‘I have to get my good dress on.’ The hospital staff took the time to find a dress in her closet.”

The author also tells similar tales about the efforts of civilian and military personnel who staffed the myriad rescue operations. Further, he deals with those who behaved badly, including the looters. He explains that word’s origins — it is derived from Hindi and Sanskrit — and shows how the crime hampered the recovery effort.

Mr. Brinkley also gives an informative thumbnail sketch of the political, economic and geographic history of New Orleans and the rest of region. It helps the reader place the events in context and, had the author expanded that section, the book would have been even better.

Given his background as a political historian, it is not surprising that Mr. Brinkley really shines when assessing the performance of government officials. He is toughest on New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin and President Bush, and has a more mixed verdict on Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco.

The author takes Mr. Nagin to task for being invisible during the days following the storm and for not reining in the excesses and incompetence of the city’s police department. Mr. Brinkley’s account is a bit one-sided, and he does not include a response from the mayor. But alas, Mr. Nagin’s performance couldn’t have been so awful: He was just re-elected, defeating Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu, a member of one of the Pelican State’s most prominent political families.

Mr. Brinkley argues that Mr. Bush did not inspire people with his post-Katrina speeches and also failed to mobilize the arsenal of the federal government in an efficient and timely manner to provide relief. That’s been the general consensus on the president, not just among his political adversaries.

As for Ms. Blanco, he sees her as well-intentioned and a competent, though uninspiring, leader. He criticizes her for not being as media savvy as she should have been and for not being sufficiently assertive in her dealings with the Bush administration.

By contrast, the author is largely uncritical the mayors of Mississippi Gulf Coast towns, and his portrayals of them border on the hagiographic.

Mr. Brinkley’s smart-alecky side occasionally comes through, such as when he cracks that criticisms of Mr. Bush were “almost enough to make a dry conservative reach for the bottle.’ He also sometimes feels the need to remind readers how smart he is, like when he drops arcane historical references while arguing that modern leaders are less effective than their predecessors were.

These minor shortcomings don’t detract from Mr. Brinkley’s comprehensive and lively book. “The Great Deluge” is among the first accounts of those tragic events and for a long time is likely to be the one against which other treatments of the subject will be judged.

Claude R. Marx writes a political column for The Eagle-Tribune in North Andover, Mass. He is the author of a chapter on the presidential campaign of Howard Dean that appears in the book: “The Divided States of America.’

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