Life in General Literature National Politics

Katrina – The Tin Roof Blowdown


Here we are at the second anniversary of the devastation
—natural and man-made—of the city of New Orleans. The storm made landfall south of town at 6:10 a.m. Aug. 29, 2005.

Now, two years in, perhaps the most emotionally vivid account of those terrible days, and of the ghastly failures and neglect that followed, is not written by a news reporter, but by Louisiana-located mystery novelist, James Lee Burke, who sets his most recent book, The Tin Roof Blowdown, against the backdrop of the period during and immediately after Hurricane Katrina.

I recommend the book as a great end-of-summer read,
but—because of the interweave of the hurricane into the tapestry of the narrative—it’s also much more than that.

Burke is known for his ability to write about his characters’ struggles against sin and for redemption with a poetic and Faulknerian flair. But, this time, his prose is also laced with torrents of sorrow and rage at what has happened to the city that he often used to describe as “The Great Whore of Babylon.” Now he writes, ““New Orleans was a song that went under the waves.”

He poses the essential questions of the storm’s aftermath, not through political tirades, but through simple scenes occurring offhandedly in the narrative, like one in which Burke’s shadow-haunted protagonist/cop, Dave Robicheaux, comes upon an old man trolling through the rubble of his house looking for his drowned wife: “How come nobody come for us?” the man says, his words soft, directed everywhere and nowhere.

Or to give you another, more empassioned example, here’s how the book opens:

My worst dreams have always contained images of brown water
and fields of
elephant grass and the downdraft of helicopter blades. The dreams are in
color but they contain no sound, not of drowned voices in the river or the
explosions under the hooches in the village we burned or the thropping of
the Jolly Green and the gunships coming low and flat across the canopy,
like insects pasted against a molten sun.

In the dream I lie on a poncho liner, dehydrated with blood expander, my
upper thigh and side torn by wounds that could have been put there by
wolves. I am convinced I will die unless I receive plasma back at
battalion aid. Next to me lies a Negro corporal, wearing only his trousers
and boots, his skin coal-black, his torso split open like a gaping red
zipper from his armpit down to his groin, the damage to his body so
grievous, traumatic, and terrible to see or touch he doesn’t understand
what has happened to him.

“I got the spins, Loot.
How I look?” he says.

“We’ve got the million-dollar ticket, Doo-doo. We’re Freedom Bird bound,”
I reply.

His face is crisscrossed with sweat, his mouth as glossy and bright as
freshly applied lipstick when he tries to smile.

The Jolly Green loads up and lifts off, with Doo-doo and twelve other
wounded on board. I stare upward at its strange rectangular shape, its
blades whirling against a lavender sky, and secretly I resent the fact
that I and others are left behind to wait on the slick and the chance that
serious numbers of NVA are coming through the grass. Then I witness the
most bizarre and cruel and seemingly unfair event of my entire life.

As the Jolly Green climbs above the river
and turns toward the China Sea,
a solitary RPG streaks at a forty-five-degree angle from the canopy below
and explodes inside the bay. The ship shudders once and cracks in half,
its fuel tanks blooming into an enormous orange fireball. The wounded on
board are coated with flame as they plummet downward toward the water.
Their lives are taken incrementally – by flying shrapnel and bullets, by
liquid flame on their skin, and by drowning in a river. In effect, they
are forced to die three times. A medieval torturer could not have devised
a more diabolic fate.

When I wake from the dream, I have to sit for a long time on the side of
the bed, my arms clenched across my chest, as though I’ve caught a chill
or the malarial mosquito is once again having its way with my metabolism.

I assure myself that the dream is only a dream, that if it were real I
would have heard sounds and not simply seen images that are the stuff of
history now and are not considered of interest by those who are determined
to re-create them.

I also tell myself that the past is a decaying memory and that I do not
have to relive and empower it unless I choose to do so. As a recovering
drunk, I know I cannot allow myself the luxury of resenting my government
for lying to a whole generation of young men and women who believed they
were serving a noble cause. Nor can I resent those who treated us as
oddities if not pariahs when we returned home.

When I go back to sleep, I once again tell myself
I will never again have
to witness the wide-scale suffering of innocent civilians, nor the
betrayal and abandonment of our countrymen when they need us most.
But that was before Katrina. That was before a storm with greater impact
than the bomb blast that struck Hiroshima peeled the face off southern
Louisiana. That was before one of the most beautiful cities in the Western
Hemisphere was killed three times, and not just by the forces of nature.

I listened to The Tin Roof Blowdown on my iPod all the way to Montana.
I’m tempted to listen to it all over again, as I drive back home.


  • Let’s see. A major hurricane is coming. People are told to evacuate–a common order in such storms and for which special evacuation highways exist. But, you stay in its destructive path, anyway!

    Granted, the governor refused to take preemptive actions and the mayor left hundreds of school buses to be flooded rather than used to evacuate, but at some point, personal responsibility for one’s own safety is the final safeguard.

    I wouldn’t choose to live below sea level in the first place, but, if I was there, I would have found a way out before the storm hit. Some people couldn’t, but most were just plain stupid and didn’t, and you can’t always save stupid people from themselves.

    Did he cover that in the book? It would have made it much more realistic.

  • Two years ago as Katrina approached; I was listening to a late night radio show with scientists who had been predicting this sort of devastation for years. They pointed to study after study which said that New Orleans would be under water.

    The next day all the bureaucrats acted as if this was huge surprise.

    I always thought it was silly to build houses below sea level.

  • Pokey have yo ever been to Amsterdam? They call it the Venice of the North. Its below sea level. So is just about all of Holland. The Dutch, being a practical people, spent billions building barriers along the North Sea. I have several Dutch friends and they were apalled at what happened to New Orleans and couldn’t understand how the supposedly most advanced country on earth couldn’t build levees.

    Take a look at a map. Do you notice this blue line emptying into the Gulf. Its called the Mississippi and, along with the Ohio and Missouri drains 2/3 of the continent. And down that system come coal and wheat and just about every other product grown or made in that region. So there would be a city down there in any case as there is naturally going to be a great port there and you need a city to go along with the port. Same thing in the Netherlands. Rotterdam sits at the mouth of the Rhine and its the busiest port in Europe.

    Course that fact that NO is also sui generis with its cajun, and crole cultures, its jazz and its food is just a happy extra. It would have been bad enough if this gang wasted Houston. But they picked the Big Easy and for that they will rot in hell if for nothing else.

  • Well, Holland could get some more land by attacking Germany, but, instead, the Dutch wisely chose to take over part of the North Sea, which, by the way, doesn’t have hurricanes.

    The History Channel today is featuring the New Orleans flooding dilemma along with the costs to build an acceptable system to control the water. The cost is just not worth it. It isn’t. Relocate those people to high ground and let the swamps, I mean wetlands, go back to their natural state. I bet that if we gave each flooded-out N.O. resident $100,000 to never come back, it would be about 90% cheaper than building up the levees.

    Send them to L.A. where there is a lot of sympathy for dumb-asses.

  • Please refer to Wikipedia for potential and past flood disasters in Holland.

    The threat of another flood on the scale of 1953 remains potent, since the combination of events generating a massive storm surge could recur in normal climatic timescales. In addition, two risk factors could increase the likelihood, or the severity, of another incident.

    Holland’s equivalent of Katrina happened in 1953 — a storm surge at high tide destroyed the dykes, killing 1,800 people.

    In 1993 and 1995 there were two new flood emergencies in the Netherlands. There were no fatalities, but the economic damage was enormous.

    Throughout history, the populations of the Dutch coastal provinces have been regularly afflicted by devastating storm surges. The most famous are the St. Elisabeth Flood of 1421 and the All Saints’ Day flood of 1570, which cost the lives of many thousands of people and caused enormous damage.

  • Please forgive me but I must have missed the story that told of the Dutch city that was destroyed in 1993/95. Oh wait there wasn’t one! Yes storms cause economic damage. But that damage was limited. The Dutch put the current system of barriers in place after 1953. We’re doing nothing of the kind in Louisiana. And its pretty pathetic if you have to go back 500 years to show big floods.

  • There is no economic justification for building more levees around New Orleans. Take that money and use it for something that can actually help people more and move them out. Just maintain the commercial section and residential sections already above sea level.

    I think that 20% of the city ended up in Atlanta and stayed here, anyway. We saw its mayor at our local movie theater, and he campaigned here for the absentee vote.

    “the St. Elisabeth Flood of 1421 and the All Saints’ Day flood of 1570, which cost the lives of many thousands of people” – It was Bush’s fault.

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