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Writing Out Katrina 

Sally Forman's self-published book on Nagin and the storm is not a kiss-and-tell, and that's to the writer's credit.

Less than a week before Hurricane Katrina hit, Sally Forman became Mayor C. Ray Nagin's communications director. A graduate of LSU with a degree in broadcast journalism, Forman had worked in several media jobs before putting her career on hold while she had two young children with her husband, Audubon Institute CEO Ron Forman. With the kids moving along in school, Sally got back in the job market and ended up with a ringside seat on the worst natural disaster in the nation's history. She was at Nagin's side as the city flooded, looters rampaged and the Superdome and Convention Center turned into nightmares of human suffering.

City Hall shifted its operations across Poydras Street to the high-rise Hyatt Hotel. Most people able to leave the city packed the highways, while an army of reporters and producers rolled in with portable energy and satellite dishes. As the energy grid crashed, cell phones and hand-held computers became lifelines to the outside world. Generators in the downtown hotels conked; rain sheets poured into the Superdome after winds punched holes in the roof. The most striking theme in Forman's new book, Eye of the Storm: Inside City Hall During Katrina, is the concern of Nagin and the people around him for saving lives and getting people who were trapped in the flooded city to safety. As they move through the Superdome, a woman complains of the heat and lack of functioning toilets.

ÒIÕm so sorry,Ó I said, hugging the bones protruding from her back.

The Mayor was consoling another frail woman nearby. ÒHang in there, sweetheart,Ó he said.Ó

Outside, Forman looks at the sky, realizing "how easily choppers could lower Port-o-lets onto the ramp." Elsewhere, she writes:

I wondered if anyone really knew how bad the situation was. Inside the Dome, a fire had erupted. The streets were chaotic and dangerous. People were still drowning and hungry. If [the state] couldnÕt send buses, couldnÕt choppers with slings just pick people up? Were safety concerns still keeping cars from entering the city to pick people up at the Convention Center? CouldnÕt someone just dump water or ice to desperate citizens on the Interstate?

Weeks after the storm, when one of the several new cell phones I was carrying rang, I picked up the unfamiliar device. ÒHello.Ó

ÒHi, Sally, this is Donald Trump, Jr.,Ó he said. ÒWe own an ice company and can send in several planes of ice if you need it.Ó

Later I would think about all of the help like this that probably tried to get in the first week after the storm but somehow couldnÕt and therefore hadnÕt. How precious ice would have been to the people on the blistering highways and in the suffocating Dome.

Forman's own story is deeply human -- missing her kids, worrying about her husband, recoiling from the horrid conditions, learning from a doctor that skin splotches are a symptom of dysentery. Eye of the Storm is a well-paced disaster narrative that conveys the despair and abandonment felt by Nagin and those around him as they tried to manage the rescue of people left behind. Nagin's hostility to Gov. Kathleen Blanco is a leitmotif, as is a more general distrust -- indeed, overarching suspicion -- of other politicians on Nagin's part. Nagin comes off as an intelligent man, commanding, witty and streetwise, but with a serious tinge of paranoia. Perhaps the core problem is the mayor's idiosyncratic idea of himself as a reform politician above the city's legendary corruption -- therefore, a man who stands alone against the sun. Given the extravagant performance of justice by U.S. Attorney Jim Letten and the local division of the FBI, it seems safe at this juncture to say that Mayor Ray Nagin has clean hands.

All to the good, but politicians have to do business together, which can often be emotionally quite dirty, given the toxicity of mutual dislikes that so blemish the democratic experiment. Here, Forman faithfully registers the mistrust and contempt between Nagin and Blanco; yet she offers too little insight into the wellsprings of all that poison. Nagin endorsed Republican Bobby Jindal over Blanco in the 2003 governor's runoff. So get over it already. Five days after the flood, Bush tried to persuade Blanco to let him federalize the Louisiana National Guard -- basically, to let the White House take over save-the-city efforts. (Many months later, from his federal prison cell, former Gov. Edwin Edwards remarked that he would have taken the deal in a second: If it failed, Bush took the fall.) Blanco refused; the law was on her side. A governor commands the state National Guard. Bush had drawn down National Guard reserves for the war in Iraq; now, with forces stretched thin, a domestic crisis with a battered infrastructure showed America, post-9/11, as deeply vulnerable. Blanco correctly smelled a White House gambit at spin control, trying to put Bush in a position of saving the city after his flyover and FEMA's bungling had trashed his ratings in less than a week.

Nagin was a survivalist; he wanted Bush to take over the job. By the mayor's lights, Blanco had failed to deliver buses and had not gotten sandbags into the breach at the 17th Street Canal as he had demanded. (Blanco, according to Forman, had sent helicopters to help save people on rooftops in New Orleans East. The narrative lacks a cogent explanation for the miscommunications between the mayor and governor.) Forman does not say so explicitly, but Nagin had run out of power, money and influence. The mayor was taking hits in the media when he gave his emotional interview to Garland Robinette on WWL Radio, excoriating Bush and Blanco.

Forman never criticizes Nagin for the lack of advance planning on the city's part, as Jed Horne does in Breach of Faith, the most reliable of the Katrina books to date. Douglas Brinkley's The Great Deluge oozes such contempt for Nagin as to betray the dispassion one expects of a journalist, much less a historian. Brinkley faults Nagin for avoiding the Superdome, where Forman writes of his visit.

Forman manages to produce moments of humor. When Gen. Russell HonorŽ, the swaggering Creole military leader Nagin likened to John Wayne, joins the beleaguered inner circle, a FEMA official lectures them on rules to be followed. HonorŽ fires back: "Excuse me, FEMA, but I think before you say another word, you need some f***ing successes."

Later, however, with the evacuation underway and people being lifted by helicopter to the airport, HonorŽ proposes the surreal idea of having bands play music as people get on planes, because they will not be told where they are going (a complaint which many evacuees bitterly made to journalists after they arrived at distant airports). Of course, there were no bands available to play at Louis Armstrong International Airport; the musicians had evacuated.

Forman produces a compelling, if uneven, portrait of Nagin. After the floodwaters receded, Nagin organized the Bring New Orleans Back Commission, which began meeting in an effort to lay down a framework and strategy for the city's recovery. Most of Forman's book concerns the first week of the hurricane. She probably would be in City Hall today had her husband not grown exasperated with Nagin's tortured recovery efforts and decided to run against him last year. Before Ron Forman announced his candidacy, Sally submitted her resignation in a complimentary letter to Nagin -- going out with class. Ron Forman ran third in the primary. Nagin's lugubrious speech on Martin Luther King Jr. Day 2006, proclaiming that New Orleans would always be a "chocolate city," made him a figure of derision on national TV but probably got him re-elected.

Eye of the Storm is a well-paced disaster narrative that reveals enough about the mayor's huge ego to give us a better understanding of his strange personality. In a passage destined for his obituary, Forman writes of Nagin after a meeting on Air Force One with President Bush, Gov. Blanco, Senators Landrieu and Vitter, Congressman Jindal and others.

The Mayor stood up and breathed a deep sigh as he looked out of the window at the darkened sky.

ÒAre you OK?Ó I asked him.

ÒThis was GodÕs plan for me, Sally,Ó he said.

ÒWhat was?Ó I asked.

ÒTo rebuild New Orleans.Ó

What breathtaking hubris! Either God failed or Nagin's plan has yet to find those mortals who can deliver the money to rebuild the broken city. In City of God, St. Augustine writes: "Justice is that virtue which gives every man his due."

Here, a disclaimer -- Forman credits me in her acknowledgments for having "provided early publishing guidance." Last fall, she called me after sending the work-in-progress to a New York editor, who referred her to a literary agent. The publisher was pushing for changes that Forman was not comfortable with making. Having not read the manuscript, I told her to follow her instincts. I suggested she take the creative writing course offered at Loyola by James Nolan. She did. She also pulled the book from the agent, and self-published with Author House.

There are two lessons here. The first is that Jimmy Nolan is a first-rate teacher for would-be writers; the quality shows in Forman's organization of the narrative, character development and absence of clichŽs. The work also has a clear, consistent writer's voice. The book's flaws are its lack of background material surrounding certain events, and in those places where Forman could have made more surgical comments about Nagin -- something for which a trade editor surely would have pushed -- to give the narrative a sharper interpretive bite: Forman distancing herself from Nagin, standing outside the mayor, commenting on what he did.

Forman does register her misgivings at moments when Nagin goes "off-script," takes gratuitous swipes at people or improvises, as in the chocolate city speech. Those tensions show the give-and-take between a media adviser and an elected official. What Forman doesn't do is spill everything she knows about Ray Nagin. Had she written such a "kiss-and-tell" book, she might have landed a nice contract.

What's missing from Forman's book is precisely its virtue: the deep cuts to Nagin. True, she divulges some things that he said which you know he wishes she had not, but in letting us see him venting his emotions she also humanizes the mayor. Her portrait of Nagin is more sympathetic and admiring than anything written by any other chronicler of Katrina. She might have found a university or smaller regional press to publish the book; but getting the book out on the second anniversary of Katrina was obviously a factor. She followed her scruples in writing the book. In an age when political aides get juicy contracts for stabbing the ex-boss in the back, you have to admire a woman who takes the high road, as politicians are wont to say.

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click to enlarge Author Sally Forman
  • Author Sally Forman
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