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Our Greatest Disaster

Tales of courage, resilience and criminal neglect

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Jed Horne, metro editor of New Orleans' venerable Times-Picayune, led his paper's valiant, Pulitzer-winning coverage of the Katrina disaster. Now he's written a book that tells the gripping story of what happened in, and to, the Crescent City and its residents during and after that catastrophe. Coming after months of repetitive media coverage, Horne's wealth of new information and fresh perspective is welcome, especially as it's presented in riveting human stories and driven by Horne's own sorrow and anger.

Breach of Faith starts and ends at the home of Patrina Peters, a 43-year-old, diabetic African-American woman with a heart condition. She and her daughter elect to stay in her home in the city's Lower Ninth Ward after making sure the rest of the family is evacuated. It doesn't take long for them to realize they'd made a terrible mistake.

Horne tells Peters' story, as well as those of others swept up in the tragedy. Those include a doctor at Charity Hospital who struggled to keep patients alive when the hospital lost power; the director of LSU's Hurricane Center who investigated and reported on the Army Corps of Engineers' responsibility for the levee breaches; a beleaguered social worker patching together quick fixes as best she can in the Superdome; a former Black Panther who delivers emergency health care in a local mosque; other residents carried along by the swirl of events; and members of the lone government agency to operate efficiently at the time, the Coast Guard. Horne writes in a clipped, straightforward style that puts you in the middle of the catastrophe, presenting a complex, humanist view of a disaster that was primarily man-made.

Few remember that when Katrina hit New Orleans, it was a Category 3 hurricane, not the Category 5 monster predicted. The true disaster came afterward when storm surges rushed through man-made canals and breached inadequately reinforced levees, one of which was installed in marshy mush and described by an engineer as "like putting bricks on JELL-O." The result, as we know, was the flooding of an area seven times the size of Manhattan. After that, calamity piled on top of calamity. Residents who hadn't evacuated -- because they remembered previous false alarms or were too poor to escape -- found themselves in a savaged, toxic, watery landscape without electricity, teeming with bloated corpses, snakes and huge flying cockroaches. And, even more ominously, no organized relief effort anywhere in sight.

Some of Horne's most vivid reporting comes as he describes in detail the efforts of residents with boats who braved the immediate aftermath to rescue people trapped in their attics or on their roofs, only to realize they didn't know where to take their charges. Finally, word got around that people should float or risk wading through the poisonous muck to the Superdome or the Convention Center. Once they got to either location, however, folks found themselves being treated more as prisoners than victims and realized help wasn't coming anytime soon due to a criminal lack of planning by New Orleans authorities.

Mayor Ray Nagin comes across in Horne's account as hesitant at best in the lead-up to the hurricane and hamstrung in the aftermath by the enormity of the damage and the destruction of most means of communication. Gov. Kathleen Blanco seems the most competent public official involved, using the resources of a poor state as well as could be expected, declaring an emergency the day before the storm hit, and asking President Bush for massive help the day after -- a request that was not passed along.

Horne's most stinging scrutiny is reserved for Bush -- whose grandiose promises to "do what it takes" to rebuild New Orleans are largely unfulfilled a year later -- and the Department of Homeland Security, particularly the miserably incompetent performance by DHS head Michael Chertoff. As Horne writes, "if Homeland Security ... was what stood between America and the next 9/11, then ... America was in deep trouble".

Breach of Faith is full of gritty, candid reporting and stories about Americans under duress that will become part of our national lore. The tragedy is that the overall story is one of ordinary people suffering the horrific consequences of official ineptitude and self-serving indifference. The longer the Bush administration goes on, the more obvious it becomes that America can't trust the efficient operation of its government to people who've made careers out of denouncing government itself. In many ways, as Horne's book makes clear, the incompetent federal response to Katrina was a self-fulfilling prophecy.

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