Ten years ago this month, I sat on my couch 2,700 miles away from the devastation in New Orleans as a tropical storm swept across the Gulf of Mexico. Authors — nonfiction outpacing fiction — spoke first before the survivors, who called her Katrina, before reporters and opinion leaders. Everything you said, I listened to.
Their works, on the other hand, I refused to read.
Because of my preference for visual memories, I was unable or unwilling to indulge myself in reading the award-winning reports from the watery horror, which spoke to me as much as they did to so many others—award-winning dispatches from a watery hell. As a result, the publication of my book on Tuesday will have the unusual benefit of allowing me to read the Katrina volumes that had been sitting on my bookshelves for nearly a decade, untouched.
Their origins differ, yet they all share a same tone. Fury swallowed by dread, tempered by fortitude. Poet laureate, professor, radioman and scientist are only few of the people in the ranks. I can’t keep track of them all. Instead of trying to be exhaustive, I’ll just share what moved me and hope that you’ll be moved to reconnect with the ghosts of our recent past, brought back to life by these powerful 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)
We get a glimpse inside the lives of nine people, all of whom were affected by Hurricane Betsy in 1965 and Hurricane Katrina in 2005, because to Baum. In the end, it’s the tale of a city and its people clinging on for dear life in the face of insurmountable odds.
Do You Know What it Means to Miss New Orleans,edited by David and Bruce Rutledge (2006)
As a collection of local characters, the contributors are not eligible for literary or stylistic synchronicity awards, but rather for the coveted crown of originality. Next to census data, Mayor Ray Nagin’s speech, Creole song lyrics, a quote from a SkyMall catalog, and a recipe for Oyster Dressing may be found tucked in between. Table of Contents includes a “Alternative Reading Order” for those who like to read portions in a way inspired by the song’s lyrics and comedy, which are typical in the Crescent City’s residents.
Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital,Sheri Fink (2013)
According to Fink, who draws on her experience as a physician to expand on the Pulitzer Prize-winning essay she wrote for The New York Times Magazine about patients who died after evacuation orders were issued for the now-flooded Memorial Hospital five days after Katrina hit. As is customary in the best narrative nonfiction, Fink brings together dozens of stories and points of view while remaining utterly detached from the individual perspectives. With this method of writing, you have a piece of history that reads like a thriller, even though you already know the outcome.
The Great Deluge: Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans, and the Mississippi Gulf Coast,Douglas Brinkley (2006)
One of the first books to be published after Katrina’s floods retreated came from a man hailed as “the greatest of the new generation of American historians.” Focusing on the week leading up to Katrina’s arrival, Brinkley covered not just the environmental and social consequences of the hurricane, but also the political fallout and emotional impacts it had on a large number of her victims. Katrina historians regard this work as the standard against which all future Katrina accounts are measured.
Zeitoun,Dave Eggers (2009)
Zeitoun focuses on the struggle of one family to escape the environmental catastrophe of Katrina while also succumbing to the socio-political catastrophe of the United States war on terror. For weeks after Hurricane Katrina passed, Abdulrahman Zeitoun, a New Orleans resident who had left his family to care for his properties after fleeing, was arrested and imprisoned on terrorism charges. An instant classic in the Katrina literature canon, the book has not been without dispute over whether the charitable organization, through which all sales revenues are funneled, and the respectability of its main character are (who was tried and acquitted in 2013 in the solicitation of attempted murder of his former wife). There’s no doubt that Katrina’s story is worth reading.
1 Dead in Attic: After Katrina,Chris Rose (2007)
Simon & Schuster bought up an award-winning regional columnist’s self-published collection of essays and stories, which became a New York Times best-seller when it was picked up by the rags-to-riches publication arc of Hurricane Katrina. But Rose’s unflinching personal parallel, in which he recounts his own decline and recovery from mental illness alongside the destruction and rebirth of the city, making him one of the storm’s storytellers most adored. Rose As for the title, it’s pulled word-for-word from a graffitied epigraph on a house.
Beyond Katrina: A Meditation on the Mississippi Gulf Coast,Natasha Trethewey (2012)
To tell the story of the Mississippi Gulf Coast after Katrina, this former US Poet Laureate uses poetry, narrative, photographs, and an intimate handwritten exchange between her and her brother, who ended up in prison for drug dealing in the wake of the storm. This book is both a love song and a dirge for the area and people of Trethewey’s birth, in keeping with her literary career, which has long focused on issues of race and home.
Breach of Faith: Hurricane Katrina and the Near Death of a Great American City,Jed Horne (2006; updated 2008)
“Horne” is well-versed in both his city and its storm, having spent his entire career as the editor of the Times-Picayune, the Pulitzer Prize-winning local daily newspaper. First-rate newsman Horne has the bravery and compassion to speak up for his neighbors in this epic speech about a natural calamity that was aggravated by a political one.
A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge,Josh Neufeld(2009)
As a Red Cross volunteer in Mississippi following Hurricane Katrina, Neufeld sketched five actual tales of survival. Using an art form usually reserved for superheroes to highlight the heroic in the everyday, this webcomic-turned-book examines how ordinary individuals fought their way back to a new version of normal after being on the verge 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)
More than 35,000 individuals were saved by the Coast Guard after Hurricane Katrina because to the unheralded efforts of shrimp and oyster boat captains in the bayou, guys who jumped in their boats and patrolled the flooded neighborhoods. Wells brings an air of the swashbuckling to this story of survival by focusing on the seafaring Robins cousins who live in the former pirate haven of St. Bernard Parish, where the present-day pastimes are “sin, cooking, drinking, eating, fighting, fishing, sex, and love.”
Salvage the Bones,Jesmyn Ward(2011)
Skeetah’s pit bull pups are as desperate to survive as the children who are raising them in this National Book Award winner. In the days leading up to the storm, a group of motherless siblings, anchored by Esch, a fourteen-and-pregnant teen, scavenge for food and shelter. For three years after Katrina ravaged her hometown of De Lisle, Mississippi, author Ward was unable to write anything new since she and her family had to swim and scrape their way through the devastation. It’s a miracle that she ended up back with these kids and their frightening story.
The Tin Roof Blowdown,James Lee Burke (2007)
According to the New York Times Book Review, it’s “the ultimate criminal fiction about Hurricane Katrina.” Using fictional Iberia Parish sheriff’s detective Dave Robicheaux and his efforts to bring criminals who have hijacked a rescue boat in the wake of Katrina to justice, Burke puts a spin on the storm that closely resembles the guerilla-like efforts of many law enforcement officers who were left behind in the chaos of the post-disaster landscape.
City of Refuge,Tom Piazza (2008)
New Orleans native and musician-turned-author Piazza’s first novel, Why New Orleans Matters, follows two very different families as they cope with hurricanes in very different ways. “Everyone in the novel, in some kind of way, needs some kind of refuge, either as a result of the storm, or before the storm,” Piazza remarked. He understands what he’s talking about because he penned his first Katrina-inspired book after fleeing to a cotton mill in Missouri. And he writes. It’s obvious.