Hurricane Katrina’s destruction, its psychological toll on residents, its political choreography and consequences—all revealed by a handful of people over a 10-year period.
Writer and documentary film producer Wolff (How Lincoln Learned to Read: Twelve Great Americans and the Educations that Made Them, 2009, etc.) begins five months after the disaster with a group of ex-addicts, organized and animated by Pastor Mel, who quickly realized that resurrection would come not from government agencies or insurance companies (who come off here as criminally dilatory), but from local residents and volunteers. By the end, Mel is much better off, his ministry greatly enlarged. Wolff introduces us to some other locals as well, revisiting them continually. Among them are some men at the Common Ground Collective, a group devoted to raising money and saving property in the devastated Lower Ninth. The author intercuts his encounters with his principals with biographical information. We also meet Carolyn and Kyrah, a struggling mother and daughter. Kyrah was a star student as a child, but we watch her fortunes fracture as she tries one college after another. Actor Brad Pitt is a presence in the narrative as well; he donated funds and spearheaded the construction of earth-friendly houses. The locals greatly appreciate him and do not see him as a self-absorbed white do-gooder. Wolff employs the present tense throughout, an effective device that helps him communicate the smells of decay, the depth of desperation and the powerful frustrations of people who feel abandoned in their own land.
The author generally resists editorializing and allows the stories of these blasted lives and sturdy souls to transmit his powerful message.