As we approach the 5th anniversary of the flooding of New Orleans, it's clear that, though the city has seen a profusion of "Katrina" art and music, the major enduring presence of the catastrophe has been on the bookshelf, or the e-reader. Because I live in the city, and because "keeping them honest" wasn't quite enough for me, I've managed to read many, if not most, of the "Katrina books". So, if you want to do something other than watch old footage be rerun late this month, try some of the selections on this list:
The Storm. Dr. Ivor van Heerden was deputy director of the LSU Hurricane Center, and one of the leaders of the Team Louisiana investigation into the flood. Like his counterpart on the UC Berkeley investigating team, Dr. Bob Bea, van Heerden is a natural teacher, gifted with the ability to make complex engineering issues comprehensible to a broad audience. "The Storm" centers on his experience as a storm-surge Cassandra before August 29 and as an investigator after. It's also a cogent, pungent account of what dawned on the investigators as they poked through the muck: This event was a man-made catastrophe, and the Corps of Engineers was The Man.
Path of Destruction. John McQuaid and Mark Schleifstein were major parts of the Times-Picayune team that won 2 Pulitzers for its coverage of the catastrophe. This book takes you back to the beginning, presenting a wide-angle view of the city's relationship to water, particularly the River. It puts the disaster in the context of nearly 300 years of history, and of the decisions that set in motion the mechanisms of failure.
Why New Orleans Matters. Tom Piazza, a novelist and a writer on the "Treme" staff, wrote this little book early in the aftermath, when the question of the city's survival was still a plausible matter for debate (what ever happened to Denny Hastert?). It's a smart, heartfelt and sometimes funny argument for the unique value of a unique city.
Catastrophe In the Making. Four scientists with different specialties from (literally) all over the map collaborated in this 2009 book which focused on the economic and political decisions that sent New Orleans down the path to catastrophe. Their view of the American "growth machine" as an economic engine that pushes forward development, and its symbiotic relationship with government agencies like the Corps, goes far to explain why a monstrosity like the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet, the "hurricane highway" that led to the flooding of St. Bernard Parish and New Orleans East, could be built in the first place.
Zeitoun. It'll ultimately be categorized as a "Katrina book", but Dave Eggers' spare, slowly dawning nightmare story is an "America book", as in, "this is what America has become". Had it appeared in, say, 1999, it would have been dismissed as an overly dystopian speculation about a future US of A. But this sobering tale of a Syrian-American painting contractor and his family weathering the Katrina flood, and what happened to him when he decided to stay in the city, is proof that, though "everything" didn't change after 9/11, some important things did. Like liberty.
Facing Catastrophe. The latest addition to the group is from Rob Verchick, on leave from teaching at Loyola-New Orleans to work in the Administration. That fact may make some of his policy prescriptions a bit too pragmatic, but the book is an important attempt to, among other things, take the "lessons of Katrina" and make from them a new kind of national policy: one that can calculate the economic value of "natural infrastructure" -- like Louisiana's coastal wetlands, which help to diminish the ferocity of incoming hurricanes -- and can use that calculation to make saner cost-benefit decisions about our environment.
UPDATE: The commenters are right. I should have included "1 Dead in Attic" by Chris Rose. Chris was a Times-Picayune columnist when the city flooded, and his columns in the aftermath are funny, scary, haunting--an emotional roller coaster of life in a city on its knees.
2ND UPDATE: And yes, again, thanks, commenters for correcting my lapse: "Nine Lives" by Dan Baum is an exceedingly valuable book, though not strictly a Katrina book. It follows nine New Orleanians through their lives pre- and post-flood, mostly in their own words. Dan gets New Orleans, understands the way folks there live their lives, and he helps you to get it, too. ("Nine Lives" is up for a Pepsi grant as a musical adaptation: http://gulf.refresheverything.com/ninelivesproject)