August 29 marks the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, the most expensive natural disaster in U.S. history and the storm that delivered a near-mortal blow to the city of New Orleans. An estimated 250 billion gallons of water inundated the Big Easy when its levee system failed, damaging four out of every five homes in the city.
Those and many other sad statistics can be found in Gary Rivlin’s Katrina: After the Flood, a clear-eyed account of New Orleans’ efforts to come back from the 2005 catastrophe. In the opening chapters, Rivlin provides a recap of the incomprehensibly awful first days of the flood. He then moves forward to tell a larger tale of bureaucracy gone epically awry—a story of city rebuilding strategies hatched and abandoned, of planning committees formed and dissolved, of political rivalries old and new. Writing in an authoritative yet accessible style, he tracks the ways in which these factors slowed New Orleans’ rebirth.
A question central to the city’s future is whether damaged communities that stand a good chance of flooding again—areas like the Lower Ninth Ward and New Orleans East—should be redeveloped or written off. Resolving that question and settling upon a general restoration strategy turn out to be agonizing tasks for government officials and citizens alike.
Rivlin weaves in powerful personal accounts from a cross-section of survivors—black and white, working class and affluent. While it’s clear that the city remains a work in progress, there is some good news. A new flood-protection system has been built and the city’s population has increased, thanks in part to an influx of artists and entrepreneurs.
A skillful storyteller, Rivlin delivers a fascinating report on a city transformed by tragedy.