Viewpoints collide in Gary Rivlin’s “Katrina: After the Flood
By Mark Guarino
August 27, 2015 9:00 a.m.
Katrina fatigue” might best describe the condition of those in New Orleans who lived through the 2005 hurricane and subsequent flood only to continue to struggle through another set of prolonged disasters: Battling with insurance companies; rebuilding homes, businesses and fractured lives; figuring out what kind of city they want to live in as Katrina fades into the collective memory.
New Orleans, a predominantly black city, did not become the all-white playground for the wealthy that many feared would happen in the storm’s wake. But it has undergone an extreme makeover. The public school system consists primarily of privatized charters; housing prices have skyrocketed, not just in its wealthiest enclaves but in poorer areas that became prime candidates for gentrification; and both the employment and income gaps between blacks and whites is much greater today than the national average. Although entrepreneurs have revitalized neighborhoods with hip new coffeehouses, craft cocktail bars and gastropubs, the city’s poverty rate has returned to pre-Katrina levels, according to The Data Center, a non-profit research organization.
How did the city get here? A good primer is “Katrina: After the Flood” by Gary Rivlin, a former New York Times reporter who was stationed in Baton Rouge and later New Orleans during the disaster’s early months. Before his arrival, Rivlin admits he knew of the city in just the most cursory ways: Mardi Gras parades, Jazz Fest and French Quarter bars. His reporting shows he took a deeper dive, not necessarily into the factors that triggered the flooding, but in the story that played out over the subsequent months and years.
This is well-trod ground, considering the years of local and national media coverage and numerous Katrina memoirs, histories, documentaries more. Rivlin acknowledges what came before; he relies heavily on past reporting, despite conducting his own interviews. But he constructs his narrative to give readers unfamiliar with the terrain a cohesive back story and illustrates the aftermath through a cross-section of people.
The most familiar is former New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, who channeled the anxiety of the moment during a memorable phone call to a local radio station in which he unloaded on the Bush White House, telling the president to get his “ass on a plane” and send help. Rivlin paints Nagin as a victim of circumstance. In a city where the white establishment backed candidates who held firm to their interests, Nagin was an appealing candidate. A black man whose father was a janitor at City Hall, Nagin derided the black establishment while vowing to fight a living-wage ordinance and oppose minority hires.
A local cable executive, he had no experience in government, and, once elected, did not appear to take to it. After Katrina, he organized what he called a “shadow government” in Dallas to plot the city’s direction. In his self-published memoir, Nagin tells of denouncing any plan that would lead to the shrinking of the black population. Others tell Rivlin it was just the opposite: Nagin was largely mute during the meeting and when asked about his recovery plan, he answered simply, “I don’t have a plan.”
“Katrina” best makes its case through locals Rivlin follows from before the storm to many years afterward. The unexpected star is Alden McDonald, president of the city’s oldest black-owned bank. His story is one we haven’t seen yet: A banker who races against the clock — and through the water — to make sure his patrons can access their money and have assurance their grace periods for loan payments are extended.
Ten years later, there are changes for the better in his city: The FEMA trailers are gone, and a $14.5 billion flood-protection system is in place. But as McDonald drives through New Orleans East, the untouched destruction creates the illusion the floodwaters poured in just yesterday. “There’s still so much to be done,” he says. For some parts of New Orleans, compared to others, recovery remains stuck in the mud.