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Katrina Troika 

Three new books on the storm offer keen insights into Katrina, its impact and New Orleans' prospects.

Soon after Hurricane Katrina's onslaught, Ivor van Heerden, a director of the LSU Hurricane Center, became a protagonist in the news coverage. Heerden was a natural go-to interview. Any network producer reading back clips in The Times-Picayune could see his longstanding relationship with Mark Schleifstein, the paper's distinguished environmental reporter.

As helicopters with cameras tracked the flooding (in which Schleifstein, among other T-P reporters, lost his home), Heerden began hammering the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, questioning whether storm surges overtopping levees was the cause of flooding in the area bound by the 17th Street and London Avenue canals. The damage from Katrina's epic winds was an act of nature; Heerden in those early weeks drew a bead on human error -- flaws in the levee design and construction by the Army Corps.

Now, almost a year after Katrina, Heerden, Schleifstein and T-P metro editor Jed Horne have all written books about Katrina, its causes and how it changed New Orleans -- and America -- forever.

There is an inevitable overlapping of themes, events and key people in the three books, yet any reader with a genuine interest in the fate of the city will find enduring value in each. Heerden is a common thread in the three. In The Storm, he examines interlocking issues of coastal erosion and flawed strategies for managing the Mississippi River, while accounting for his own efforts during the storm. The prose is conversational, if often scientific-clunky (no credit to collaborator Mike Bryan), but Heerden makes the man-made failures real.

Schleifstein and co-author John McQuaid, the lead writers in the T-P's prescient 2002 series on eroding wetlands and environmental decay, add resonance to Heerden's concerns, giving him due credit while tracing a broader history of hurricanes and flooding that have beset New Orleans through its history. Their book, Path of Destruction, has an Aug. 16 publication date. Heerden also figures prominently in Breach of Faith, Horne's gripping account of the storm, the flooding and how the city lurched toward recovery in the months that followed. Horne's is the best narrative among the three; he treats the city as an organism with a range of set pieces and cameo profiles that include T-P photographer Ted Jackson, wrestling with his conscience as he trains the lens on people caught in flooding, and Schleifstein himself.

Heerden provides important background information: "Our wetlands are the number-one source of crude oil (pumping more than the Alaska pipeline) and the second-leading source of natural gas, and in order to support and transport this production the companies have carved, by one calculation, eight thousand miles of cuts and canals through the wetlands," reports Heerden.

He writes that Katrina, in moving across the Gulf, "generated energy equivalent to one hundred thousand atomic bombs" -- a potent metaphor to frame the impact of global warming and rising ocean temperatures. His criticism of the Army Corps of Engineers for faulty design and construction of the levees forms the core of this book, a counter-story to Katrina's wrath: the mistakes of a federal agency that caused massive flooding. Heerden links the erosion of coastal wetlands, once historic buffers to flooding, to sleazy Louisiana politics.

In 1994, then-Congressmen Billy Tauzin and Jimmy Hayes (who have both since vaulted to lucrative private-sector perches) introduced the Private Property Owners' Bill of Rights to compensate landowners when environmental regulations deprived them of 50 percent of fair market value of their land. The bill had a reclassification scheme for wetlands that, notes Heerden, was opposed by 33 states' attorneys general: "This was narrow-minded, short-sighted, knee-jerk so-called property rights legislation."

After going public with his opposition to the bill, Heerden was in Baton Rouge "enjoying a po-boy" at a local establishment when he got a call from Tauzin himself, "swearing, labeling me a 'tree-hugger,' et cetera, et cetera. ... Tauzin and Hayes launched into me. I was an 'African dictator,' and worse. Hayes said he would get me."

Two years later, a coastal restoration project on which Heerden had worked fell apart under the new governor, Mike Foster, whose environmental record rivals that of Edwin Edwards for cynicism in service of petrochemical interests. Heerden calls these experiences "the wake-up call of a lifetime for me, and a blunt lesson about the vindictiveness of Louisiana politics. ... The two congressmen got their pound of flesh from me and more when they helped kill our comprehensive restoration initiative. Subsequently, a senior LSU employee told me that Tauzin's staff had warned that if my name was on anything that needed funding -- forget it."

Even last year, LSU officials tried to prevent Heerden from giving interviews at one point, but then relented. Tauzin and Hayes were gone, but the university's fear of upsetting a political establishment long beholden to industry continued.

"REPORTERS EVEN FROM SOME OF the big papers that for a decade had been exhaustively critiquing their own and their rivals' work for signs of racial and gender insensitivity, proved shockingly comfortable reviving stereotypes that were both unflattering and, as it turned out, false," writes Horne in Breach of Faith. "Rumors of gang rapes and wanton murder needed to be repeated only two or three times before reporters decided the rumors had been corroborated and repeated them in print -- the story of the asthmatic child, for example, reported by [The Washington Post] as having died in the convention center and then been simply abandoned on the floor. ... No such death was ever confirmed."

Elsewhere, Horne writes, "Caught up in what, for many, was the biggest story of their careers, reporters dipped their pens in purple ink."

No doubt media coverage of Katrina could sustain a long analytical book. Horne, author of the true-life crime book, Desire Street, moves from passing commentary on bungled reporting to episodes drawn from his own interviews, buttressed by information from the paper's reporting (which won two Pulitzer Prizes). His narrative follows the city's lurching into early 2006 and the traumatic politics of rebuilding.

Last fall, the story post-debacle was the visionary plan for a new city as sketched by the Urban Land Institute of Washington D.C. The creeping shadow-story was a numbing dearth of political leadership. Horne hints at this while focusing on a small constellation of flood survivors, alongside people of power and prominence, all trying to figure out the viability of the city and their lives here. Attorney and real estate baron John Cummings discusses class-action litigation; his son Sean, proprietor of International House Hotel, wonders if the city will attract young people to live here. With pathos in the survivor stories, Horne shows a shrewd eye for detail, as when water moccasins bask on a city rooftop.

Horne also lays on the irony in profiling lawyer Bob Harvey, an ex-potentate of the Orleans Parish Levee Board, that legendary hive for wheeling and dealing. Brooding about the failed levees, Harvey, who escaped from his inundated neighborhood behind the 17th Street Canal in a boat, utters deep truth: "But if you want to kill the Orleans Levee Board ... that might not be such a bad idea."

Television coverage of the mammoth failures by government in the week after the storm portrayed President George W. Bush, Gov. Kathleen Blanco, and Mayor Ray Nagin as weak leaders who failed at a critical time. Of the three, Bush has fared the worst. FEMA's disastrous response and Bush's transparent indifference in the first week crippled his public standing. Short of a spectacular turnaround in Iraq, Bush will limp out of office, the worst president in modern times.

Although Horne is critical of Bush, Nagin and Blanco for their performances during the crisis, he strikes a tone of detachment about their political fortunes as the narrative concludes in late winter 2006.

Nagin and Blanco have fared better. The mayor won re-election after a tepid campaign by Mitch Landrieu. It's also clear that many voters sympathized with Nagin and forgave his blunders -- failing to organize a total evacuation, the debacle in the Superdome and Convention Center. Since his victory, however, Nagin has reverted to form, offering no vision or master plan, with federal billions soon to hit the streets for demolition and rebuilding.

Blanco, who was derided last fall by Time as one of the nation's worst governors, pushed a levee board consolidation plan that might even please Bob Harvey. The bill made it through the Legislature, no small accomplishment given the gaggle of yahoos ensconced there. After refusing Bush's September request to federalize the national guard -- so the "war president" could steal credit for troops bound to the rescue -- Blanco formed the Louisiana Recovery Authority to route the belated relief funds authorized by Congress to homeowners and business owners facing economic ruin. However poor her TV appearances, Blanco has outclassed Bush and Nagin in the leadership department.

Horne's chapters on the Dutch response to a cataclysmic flood in 1953 -- a visionary protection system -- and how the Japanese city of Kobe rebuilt after a 2005 earthquake offer a measure of hope. Like politicians, cities can and do recover if they have the will and the means to achieve it. Do New Orleanians have the will? There is so little outrage toward Nagin as to suggest a collective numbness. Absent a galvanizing mayor, getting Congressional support for a state-of-the-art hurricane-defense system will be somewhat difficult.

"THERE HAS ALWAYS BEEN AN ELEMENT of folly in mankind's attempts to control or outsmart nature," write McQuaid and Schleifstein. "The self-important activities of human society are brief flickers of a candle flame compared to the mighty forces driving the rise of mountains, the shifting of river courses and the fury of hurricanes."

They treat Hurricane Betsy, in 1965, as a turning point. "The city's vulnerability stunned the nation. It was obvious that if something weren't done to protect New Orleans, it might not survive another blow. Ironically, the principal source of the city's vulnerability was its growth. As it had expanded, upgrades on its already weak hurricane levees hadn't kept pace."

They cite the 1923 construction of the Industrial Canal and the early 1960s completion of MRGO -- the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet -- as creating sluiceways for billions of gallons of water to pour into the city during a storm. Even Louisiana's Republican U.S. Sen. David Vitter, no champion of the environment, has called for closure of MRGO.

The centerpiece of Path of Destruction is the authors' chronicle of the Katrina debacle. It is moving, as nearly any well-researched account is bound to be; yet the subtitle, The Devastation of New Orleans and the Coming Age of Superstorms, gets more cursory treatment in the final chapter. This material is particularly sobering, an echo to Al Gore's book-and-documentary film, An Inconvenient Truth. The year 2005 was the hottest year on record, registering serious changes at far ends of the globe.

"A satellite study showed the Antarctic ice sheet was melting at a rate of 36 miles per year at a time when scientists had expected it to be growing," they write. "At the opposite pole, the Arctic ice was disappearing too, shrinking to its smallest recorded area, putting polar bears and other wildlife in danger of extinction. ... A steady drumbeat of scientific studies tied these events to global warming -- the gradual heating of the earth's atmosphere due to carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases generated by modern industrial activity: power plants, factories, vehicles."

The authors estimate a flood defense system with sea-gates in the Gulf, higher levees and coastal restoration would cost $40 billion. They peg Katrina's losses at $100 billion. Skeptical about the Army Corps of Engineers' ability to balance the coastal restoration and massive sea-gate building, they close on a dark note, speculating that another titanic storm would render New Orleans not a Venice, a city-island bobbing with its canals, but an Atlantis gone for good.

McQuaid and Schleifstein know these issues better than most journalists today. Nevertheless, global warming is a comparatively new story, with information -- and political responses to the dire forecasts -- still to come. At times like this, with such pathetic political leadership, we might remind ourselves that America was once a country that sent men to the moon.

For now, as the late CBS newsman Edward R. Murrow of CBS said in closing his broadcasts: "Good night and good luck."

Jason Berry, a longtime Gambit Weekly contributor, will publish his seventh book in September, Last of the Red Hot Poppas, a tragicomic novel about Louisiana politics.

click to enlarge Jed Horne and Mark Schleifstein outside The Times- - Picayune office where Horne is metro editor and Schleifstein - is a reporter. - TRACIE MORRIS SCHAEFER
  • Tracie Morris Schaefer
  • Jed Horne and Mark Schleifstein outside The Times- Picayune office where Horne is metro editor and Schleifstein is a reporter.
click to enlarge LSU scientist Ivor van Heerden's book, The Storm, discusses - man-made failures that added to the Katrina disaster. - PAUL KEMP
  • Paul Kemp
  • LSU scientist Ivor van Heerden's book, The Storm, discusses man-made failures that added to the Katrina disaster.
click to enlarge John McQuaid, who works in Washington D.C., worked with - Times-Picayune environmental reporter Mark Schleifstein - on Path of Destruction. - TYRONE TURNER
  • Tyrone Turner
  • John McQuaid, who works in Washington D.C., worked with Times-Picayune environmental reporter Mark Schleifstein on Path of Destruction.
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