Book Review: The Great Deluge by Douglas Brinkley (2006)

May 12th, 2009 9:40 pm by Kelly Garbato

A few weeks back, I “read” (read: listened to) Douglas Brinkley’s The Great Deluge: Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans, and the Mississippi Gulf Coast (2006) – on audiobook. Since he made little mention of non-human animals in the book, initially I wasn’t going to bother posting the review here. But, lo and behold, prior to posting the review on Amazon, I discovered that Brinkley does discuss the plight of “pets” during and after Hurricane Katrina. For some undetermined reason, however, all but one (that I counted – and believe you me, I was counting!) reference to non-human animals was cut from the audio version of the book. Given that the book’s 768 pages were watered down into five discs totaling just under six hours of narration, much was cut, but. Still – weird, very weird.

The end result: while animal advocates will probably be frustrated by the audio version’s lack of attention to non-human animals (who, let’s face it, played a key role in the disaster, even if you don’t believe that they’re worthy of consideration on their own), methinks y’all (we’all?) might be happier with the unabridged print version.

Hey, it’s on my wishlist.

The Great Deluge by Douglas Brinkley (2006)

768 pages in 6 hours: What was lost in narration?

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I initially “read” the audiobook version of Douglas Brinkley’s The Great Deluge: Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans, and the Mississippi Gulf Coast, a chronicling of the events leading up to and following Hurricane Katrina’s landfall(s) on the Gulf Coast in August 2005. Brinkley, a historian and New Orleans resident, offers a level-headed assessment of the local, state and federal government’s preparations for and response to what would ultimately be the single deadliest (and one of the costliest) hurricane in the United States’ history.

There’s plenty of blame to go around, and Brinkley serves up slices of humble pie to everyone from President George W. Bush, to Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and FEMA Director Michael Brown, with an extra-heaping plate of fail saved especially for NOLA Mayor Ray Nagin. Brinkley also points out the failings of local police officers, government bureaucracy at the local, state and federal levels – he even finds fault with city founder Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville, who initially chose the site of New Orleans and refused to abandon the city, even after a hurricane destroyed most of the existing structures, only four years into the city’s brief existence.

Brinkley also praises those who rose to the occasion: meteorologists who tried in vain to alert local and state officials to the impending disaster; police and military officers who performed their duties with bravery and compassion; neighbors who rescued one another when the government would not (or could not); and citizens the world over who rushed in to help displaced Gulf Coast residents. As infuriating as are the tales of government incompetence and corruption, these individual narratives of goodwill are equally inspiring.

As I mentioned previously, I “read” The Great Deluge in audiobook format. My chief complaint with the book is that Brinkley makes little mention of nonhuman animal companions – “pets” – and the role they played in the disaster. As ill-prepared as New Orleans was to evacuate the city’s poor, elderly and disabled residents, less still were they equipped to care for the animal companions of these marginalized groups. While some New Orleans residents were offered evacuation at the last minute, neither the government-supplied buses nor shelters allowed non-human animals – so residents were forced to leave their beloved animals behind, to certain death (sometimes reportedly at gunpoint). More than a few residents chose to stay put and ride out the storm with their non-human family members – and, as result, many human and non-human animals died needlessly. (It was because of the fault lines revealed by Katrina that the Pets Evacuation and Transportation Standards Act (PETS Act) was born; the law, which was signed by Bush in 2006, requires the inclusion of animal companions in state and local disaster planning.) Likewise, individual animal rescuers and animal advocacy organizations displayed unparalleled foresight, courage, tenacity and efficiency in the face of the storm. These were some of the first responders on the scene, searching out gutted homes and sewage-filled streets in hopes of finding surviving animals. Truly, the folks at the Louisiana SPCA, Muttshack, Noah’s Wish, the Humane Society of Louisiana, Best Friends, Farm Sanctuary, Kinship Circle, et al, are Katrina’s heroes.

Given that the fate of the Gulf Coast’s non-human animals were (and still are) an integral part of the story, I was more than a little disappointed that Brinkley gave them scant mention – hence the 4/5 star rating. However, upon browsing Amazon’s listing for the print version of The Great Deluge, it seems that much was omitted from the abridged audio version. Indeed, 768 pages were condensed into a mere five discs, totaling slightly less than 6 hours of running time!

Judging from reviewer responses to the unabridged hardcover and paperback versions of the book, Brinkley does indeed discuss the plight of non-human animals, as well as the efforts of their rescuers. The highlighted review from PUBLISHER’S WEEKLY, for example, says:

“Historian Brinkley (Tour of Duty, etc.) opens his detailed examination of the awful events that took place on the Gulf Coast late last summer by describing how a New Orleans animal shelter began evacuating its charges at the first notice of the impending storm. The Louisiana SPCA, Brinkley none too coyly points out, was better prepared for Katrina than the city of New Orleans. It’s groups like the SPCA, as well as compassionate citizens who used their own resources to help others, whom Brinkley hails as heroes in his heavy, powerful account.”

Thus, the fault seems to lie not with Brinkley, but with whoever decided to cut any discussion of animal-related issues from the audio version of the book (thus implying that they’re expendable). The same goes for first-person, survivor accounts, as the audiobook contains precious few of these. I imagine that, should I ever get around to reading the huge tome that is The Great Deluge, I’ll find it worthy of a full five stars. For the reasons discussed above, however, the audiobook falls a little short of my expectations.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined.)

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