Breach of Faith
Hurricane Katrina and the Near Death of a Great American City
Random House / 432 pages / $25.95
There are so many stories to tell about Hurricane Katrina, none of them new. The fear and suffering, the dramatic rescues and heartbreaking losses are such common experiences in southern Louisiana, so obvious a backdrop to the uncertainties of life there, they are rarely recounted anymore, much less in a compelling way.
It is within this context that New Orleans writer and newspaper editor Jed Horne adds Breach of Faith to the hurricane's archives, making it ever more remarkable that he offers something different to the dialogue, something even worth reading.
Horne tells the story of Hurricane Katrina's assault on New Orleans, and its consequences, from the perspective that matters most - the individuals and families who endured the storm, or didn't. Coming nearly a year afterward, it is improved by the context that only a retrospective account allows, and also by some unexpected details and dramas that succeed in making the story seem different from the rest.
We experience, for instance, not just the heat and despair of being swamped on a rooftop, but also the swarm of cockroaches that erupt from the walls when the floodwaters rise. We meet a woman - a looter, some would call her - who flips through the developed film at a shattered drugstore to grab her own snapshots. A bureaucrat orders an out-of-town doctor to stop performing chest compressions on a dying woman because he has not filled out the proper paperwork.
Breach of Faith is not a book about politics, or about blame, but is most powerful when Horne's honest, rarely angry writing assesses the bureaucratic incompetence and failure that compounded the hurricane's mess. No government or agency is treated softly, but federal officials get particular skewering, as they plot how to blame state and local politicians in Louisiana for the government's ineptitude even as residents of New Orleans are still dying in their attics.
"Rarely does history grade a presidency so quickly or so harshly," Horne writes. "Because if Homeland Security and its stepchild, FEMA, was what stood between America and the next 9/11, then as New Orleans learned the hard way, America was in deep trouble."
Horne's chapter on the evacuation of the city's Charity Hospital - or, more precisely, the shameful and deadly nonevacuation that lasted five days - might be one of the most damning criticisms of the hurricane response put to words, yet without pointing a finger at anyone or anything. He lets the people of New Orleans make the point, like the frustrated doctor who said: "We had poor people. We were going to be last. Nobody had any illusions about that."
Perhaps it was inevitable for a book written by an editor of New Orleans' daily newspaper that some of its story is told through the experiences of reporters and photographers who witnessed Katrina and its aftermath. It is in these moments that Horne loses the cultural personality that makes the rest of his book more engaging.
Yet Breach of Faith is also enriched by the award-winning work of its author's newspaper, The Times-Picayune, whose relentless attention to every detail of the calamity earned it two Pulitzer Prizes. It is from this effort that we learn, for instance, of the questionable engineering and construction of the city's levee system, or that government roofing contracts paying $175 for 10-foot-square patches are performed by subcontractors who willingly accept just $2 a square.
Breach of Faith is a story not so much about a storm or a city as a group of people, and the final chapter, a staccato afterword providing updates on all the book's characters, captures their faded hope. The children still haven't come home, the engineers still don't agree on what happened to the levees, the city still resembles little of what it was and offers few hints at what it might someday be.
"Perhaps a concise plan to re-engineer New Orleans ... would have been just another government fiasco. Perhaps it was better to let the city's revival continue helter-skelter and hope that the result was not the shantytown and plunging property values predicted in those portions of the city's 116,000 acres that failed to regain the population density an urban infrastructure requires," he writes.
"Perhaps the market would work its magic, suddenly remembering a city that had lain fallow for decades before Katrina, its working people idled, its children sinking deeper and deeper into poverty and lawlessness. Perhaps it would do so within the lifetimes of the men and women and children who had survived the hurricane."
Perhaps the most important message of Breach of Faith is its frustrated search for an answer to Katrina's destruction. It reminds us that New Orleans' story hasn't ended yet.