Katrina, 10 Years After: A Reading List
Telling the Stories of an American Tragedy
Ten years ago this month, with 2,700 miles separating me and the monster masquerading as a tropical storm over the Gulf, I eavesdropped on the wrecked city of New Orleans from the comfort of my couch. The reporters spoke first, followed by the opinion-makers, then the authors—nonfiction outpacing fiction—until, finally, the survivors themselves spoke her name: Katrina. I listened to every last one.
But I refused to read their books.
Mine is a visual memory, and as such the pictures spoke to me as they did to so many of us—award-winning dispatches from a watery hell—but I denied myself the indulgence of literature, fearful as I was of absorbing too much of someone else’s story as I pieced together my own narrative from the detritus of the storm. Which is why tomorrow’s release of my novel comes with an uncommon benefit: after a too-long abstention, I could dust off the Katrina volumes that had sat, untouched, on my bookshelves for nearly a decade, and absorb them.
The authorial voices vary in origin but share a common resonance. Fury tempered by resilience, awe subsumed by fear. Among the ranks are a poet laureate, professor, radioman, scientist, actor, doctor, musician, cartoonist. Too many voices to name. So I will forfeit any hope of being comprehensive in favor of sharing what moved me in the hope that you, too, will be stirred to reconnect with the ghosts of our recent past, resurrected for us by these mighty storytellers who refuse to let us forget the legacy of Hurricane Katrina.
Nine Lives: Mystery, Magic, Death, and Life in New Orleans, Dan Baum (2009)
Melding a biographer’s breadth and an essayist’s specificity, Baum paints for us portraits of nine individual lives bookended by two great storms: Hurricane Betsy in 1965 and Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Less the story of either storm, it is the survival story of a city and her citizens imperiled by forces forever swirling just beyond their control.
Do You Know What it Means to Miss New Orleans, edited by David and Bruce Rutledge (2006)
To this compilation goes not the writing prize nor the award for stylistic synchronicity—for the contributors are a mixed bag of local characters—but instead the coveted crown for creativity. Next to census data is the text of a speech by NOLA Mayor Ray Nagin, which is itself cozied up beside Creole song lyrics, a quote from a SkyMall catalog, and a recipe for Oyster Dressing. There is an Alternative Reading Order suggested after the official Table of Contents in the event you want to read sections in the order inspired by the titular song, a tip of the hat to the fully intact sense of lyricism and humor common to the people of the Crescent City.
Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital, Sheri Fink (2013)
Expanding on the Pulitzer Prize-winning article she penned for The New York Times Magazine that took advantage of her background as a physician, Fink explores the alleged euthanasia of patients after evacuation orders were handed down for waterlogged Memorial Hospital five days after Katrina hit. In the tradition of the best narrative nonfiction, Fink draws together dozens of stories and perspectives without melding any of the voices. The result: a work of history that reads like a thriller, and keeps you guessing to the very end even though you knew the outcome from the outset.
The Great Deluge: Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans, and the Mississippi Gulf Coast, Douglas Brinkley (2006)
From a man lauded for being “the best of the new generation of American historians” came one of the first books to hit the press after the waters of Katrina receded. Focused on the compressed timeframe of the single week beginning two days before landfall, Brinkley cast a wide net in reporting not just the environmental and social impact of Katrian but also the political fallout and emotional effects of the storm on vast numbers of her victims. Many consider this to be the quintessential historical accounting of Katrina against which all future works should be judged.
Zeitoun, Dave Eggers (2009)
As much political protest as prose, Zeitoun focuses on one family’s struggle to escape the environmental disaster of Katrina while succumbing to the socio-political disaster that is the U.S. war on terror. Abdulrahman Zeitoun—who stayed in New Orleans to care for his properties after evacuating his family—was arrested and imprisoned on suspicion of terrorism and disappeared for weeks into the makeshift prison system that rose up after the storm passed. A fast favorite in the canon of Katrina literature, the book has not been without controversy regarding the nature of the nonprofit through which all sales proceeds flow and the respectability of its main character (who was tried and acquitted in 2013 in the solicitation of attempted murder of his former wife). Nonetheless, it is a noteworthy and unique Katrina read.
1 Dead in Attic: After Katrina, Chris Rose (2007)
This self-published collection of columns and stories by an award-winning regional columnist became a New York Times bestseller when picked up by Simon & Schuster, a rags-to-riches publication arc inversely representative of the overnight devastation wrecked by Hurricane Katrina on the South. But it is Rose’s unflinching personal parallel, in which he documents his own descent into and recovery from mental illness alongside the city’s destruction and reconstruction, that makes him one of the most beloved of the storm’s storytellers. And the title—lifted word-for-word from an epigraph-cum-epitaph spray-painted on the side of a house—kicks ass, too.
Beyond Katrina: A Meditation on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, Natasha Trethewey (2012)
This former United States Poet Laureate (2012-2014) uses poetry, narrative, photographs, and a handwritten exchange between herself and her brother, who wound up jailed for drug dealing in the wake of Katrina, to tell the story of the Mississippi Gulf Coast post-hurricane. In harmony with the leitmotifs of her literary oeuvre, which has long focused on themes of race and home, this book manages to be both a love song and a dirge for the place and people of Trethewey’s birth.
Breach of Faith: Hurricane Katrina and the Near Death of a Great American City, Jed Horne (2006; updated 2008)
A career editor for the Pulitzer Prize-winning local daily newspaper, the Times-Picayune—which managed every single day, without fail, even when its offices were flooded, to transmit news—Horne knows his city and his storm. With guts and compassion that brand him a first-rate newsman, Horne speaks for his neighbors and skewers the government he believes failed them in this epic statement about a natural disaster compounded by a political one.
A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge, Josh Neufeld (2009)
Cartoonist Neufeld turned his post-disaster stint as a Red Cross volunteer in Mississippi into a graphic depiction of five true stories of survival. With a focus on the question of whether to flee the storm or defy evacuation orders and wait it out, this webcomic-turned-book uses an art form often reserved for superheroes to call out the heroic in the everyday, as laypeople fought their way back to a new version of normal from the very brink of disaster.
The Good Pirates of the Forgotten Bayous: Fighting to Save a Way of Life in the Wake of Hurricane Katrina, Ken Wells (2008)
The Coast Guard may have plucked 35,000 people from the waters of the storm, but it is the unsung support from the shrimp- and oyster-boat captains of the bayou—men who took to their boats and roamed the floods streets—that helped save so many. With a focus on the seafaring Robins cousins who reside in the former pirate haven of St. Bernard Parish, where the present-day pastimes are “sin, cooking, drinking, eating, fighting, fishing, sex, and love,” Wells brings an air of the swashbuckling to this story of survival.
Salvage the Bones, Jesmyn Ward (2011)
In this National Book Award winner, Skeetah’s pit bull pups are as desperate to survive as are the children raising them. Set in the days leading up to the storm, this band of motherless siblings, anchored by fourteen-and-pregnant Esch, scrounges for food and shelter in order to save themselves. Author Ward, who with her family swam and scavenged her own way through the devastated town of De Lisle, Mississippi, when Katrina hit, could not write creatively for three years afterward. It is our great good fortune that she finally found her way home to these children and their haunting tale.
The Tin Roof Blowdown, James Lee Burke (2007)
The New York Times Book Review called this “the definitive crime novel about Hurricane Katrina.” With a focus on fictional Iberia Parish sheriff’s detective Dave Robicheaux and his efforts to bring to justice to bear on a band of criminals who’ve hijacked a rescue boat in the wake of Katrina, Burke puts a spin on the storm that hews very closely to the guerilla-like efforts of many left-behind law enforcers in the chaos that was the post-disaster landscape.
City of Refuge, Tom Piazza (2008)
Following closely on the heels of his nonfiction title Why New Orleans Matters, New Orleans transplant and musician-turned-author Piazza’s fiction tracks two wholly unique families and their divergent storm responses. The book is aptly named for a gospel song from the 1920s: “Everybody in the book, in some kind of way, needs some kind of refuge, either as a result of the storm, or before the storm,” Piazza said. Given that he wrote his first Katrina-inspired book after evacuating to a Missouri cotton gin, Piazza knows of what he speaks. And writes. And it shows.
Much of the literature directed toward children came later than the works aimed at adults, which is natural; we must process before we can explain, before we can find lessons to impart. But as we approach markers such as the upcoming ten-year-anniversary of the storm on August 29, the young ask us for an accounting. As for me, I will be driving my children across the South this August; my ten-year-old daughter and eleven-year-old son are accompanying me on the Southern leg of the Landfall national book tour so I can introduce them, finally, to the place I once called home.
Sitting in a pile to pack, alongside our sunscreen and Roll Tide T-shirts, are these companions: What Was Hurricane Katrina? by Robin Koontz; Heroes of Hurricane Katrina by Allan Zullo; Drowned City: Hurricane Katrina & New Orleans by Don Brown; Zane and the Hurricane: A Story of Katrina by Rodman Philbrick; and Hurricane Katrina, 2005 (I Survived #3). I expect that by the end of our trip they will be good and dog-eared friends, all.