- Katrina: After the Flood by Gary Rivlin
A decade after Hurricane Katrina, do we really understand the seemingly endless social and political fallout that occurred with “Katrina”? Journalist Gary Rivlin seeks to answer this question in Katrina: After the Flood. The book traces the events surrounding the storm and its aftermath, through to its nine-year anniversary in 2014. Piecing together news coverage, interviews, public documents, and his own observations on the effects of the storm and the rebuilding process, Rivlin argues that, despite the ample media coverage around the storm, the public has been left, paradoxically, with a caliginous understanding of one of the most publicized disasters in American history. This ambiguity of experience has sustained the political and physical disarray still felt a decade after the storm and provides ample discourse for Rivlin to untangle.
In August 2005, Rivlin, then a journalist for the New York Times, was part of the “storm team” sent to cover Katrina. As the storm unfolded, he was keenly positioned to record reactions to the unfolding chaos in real time (xv). In the book, Rivlin relies on these interviews and firsthand observations to root the political in the personal, devoting whole chapters to the stories of people affected by the storm. One story is that of Cassandra Wall, one of five sisters from New Orleans East whose relocation struggle is emblematic of the thousands of residents throughout the region. Another is Alden J. McDonald, Jr., the owner of the city’s largest black-owned bank, Liberty Bank, who is representative of the effect of the storm on local businesses. Additionally, Rivlin highlights the daily activities of New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin and others, showcasing the response and mitigation efforts by leaders at local, state, and national levels. Rivlin supplements these and other interviewees with trial transcripts, newspaper articles, television footage, and governmental records to parse out a complicated narrative of response and rebuilding.
With its personal anecdotes, After the Flood re-examines the familiar speeches of an unraveling mayor, the political power plays of governors and the President, the fumbling of FEMA officials, and the well-publicized horrors of the Superdome, the Danziger Bridge shootings, and the closure of the Crescent City Connection. It is in the re-examination of these familiar incidents that Rivlin unpacks the ante-diluvian and post-diluvian periods in vivid detail, using hard evidence and research to challenge the narratives disseminated by [End Page 93] popular memory. He records who did what and when, without resorting to moralization or blame for dramatic effect.
Rivlin focuses on the historical framework of race and class in New Orleans through pointed and well-researched segments (as detailed in extensive endnotes). Rivlin attempts to highlight a straightforward argument set out in the introduction––that the areas affected the most were those “where most of the city’s black people lived” and these areas, historically, shoulder a longer history of racial segregation, unfair environmental burden, and financial immobility (xvi). However, the jarring onslaught of themes presented in Rivlin’s twenty-eight chapters results in the loss of his argument. For example, in chapter twenty-two, he jumps from a discussion of Bobby Jindal’s gubernatorial race, to Brad Pitt’s Make It Right Foundation, and then zooms out to presidential contenders John McCain and Barack Obama, and finally to the Clinton Global Initiative’s programming at Tulane University. As a result, his reader is left awed by the magnitude of this narrative, but frustrated at what is left unsaid, or at least under-emphasized, regarding the theme of racial inequality and rebuilding.
Despite this, in the crowded marketplace of scholarly and popular nonfiction publications on Katrina, After the Flood stands alone in the minuteness of its detail. Its documentation of a multi-faceted storm, particularly the first four years after the storm, is impressive. The work also evidences the major problem with studying “Katrina”: with so much to cover and a plethora of material accessible on the issue, our understanding of what happened, when, and why is clouded even a decade later. Charting this narrative...