Former New York Times reporter Rivlin (Broke, USA: From Pawnshops to Poverty, Inc.—How the Working Poor Became Big Business, 2010, etc.) delivers a magnificently reported account of life in a broken, waterlogged city.
During Hurricane Katrina in August 2005, the levees of New Orleans broke, causing $135 billion in damages, killing over 1,800 people, and leaving 80 percent of the city flooded. Most devastated were the lowest-lying (poor, black) neighborhoods. News coverage and a plethora of books have burnished the images of those days in the American psyche—the rubble and wrecked cars, the FEMA trailers, the 25,000 people stranded in the fetid Superdome, and the seeming inability of officials to act decisively to rescue black residents who could not afford to flee. Rivlin arrived early on to cover the tragedy and stayed with the story for 10 years, conducting hundreds of interviews, exploring every imaginable aspect of the “botched rescue” and recovery, and delving sympathetically into the lives of countless people, black and white, who stayed, left, or returned. Throughout the book, the author provides intimate portraits—e.g., black banker Alden McDonald, who worked tirelessly on behalf of black residents; white suburbanite Joe Canizaro, head of the official recovery commission; former Black Panther Malik Rahim, who led rebuilding efforts in the 9th Ward. This is a nightmarish story of variously powerless, incompetent, and politicking figures, from the George Bush administration, hampered by “incompetence” and “ideology,” to the “ineffectual” Mayor Ray Nagin, now imprisoned for public corruption, and, most disturbing, white blue bloods who looked forward to a city without blacks. Rivlin’s exquisitely detailed narrative captures the anger, fatigue, and ambiguity of life during the recovery, the centrality of race at every step along the way, and the generosity of many from elsewhere in the country. Although federal monies eventually helped give the city a “massive makeover,” widespread poverty remains, with only a third of houses now occupied in the lower 9th.
Deeply engrossing, well-written, and packed with revealing stories.