Read an Excerpt
New Orleans, 2005
I t was an awesome storm. Howling gusts tore at the roof of the New Orleans
Superdome, peeling away long, narrow strips that sailed out of sight in a loopy trajectory in the wind and rain. Inside, thousands of people were camped on the playing field, the tiers of seats, and in the raw cement corridors. Rain poured in. People were soaked and shivering. But the worst was yet to come.
Hurricane Katrina had roughed up the outskirts of Miami and now it was hammering New Orleans—wrecking the city and setting the stage for massive flooding. Before the storm and the flooding were over, more than
1,800 people would be dead. New Orleans, a huge swath of southern
Louisiana, and the entire Mississippi coast would be in ruins. The damage would run to perhaps $135 billion, and Katrina would be remembered as one of the deadliest and costliest hurricanes in history.
From my lookout in the garage at New Orleans City Hall, I watched as a dangling traffic light shot across an intersection like a bullet pass, then swung back on its tether. Nearby, windows shattered and glass sprayed down on the sidewalk like lethal snow. It was 7:00 a.m. on August 29, 2005,
and the wind was clocking more than one hundred miles an hour, chewing at office buildings, homes, the Superdome—everything in the city.
As I peered out through the gaps in a latticed brick wall, a big sheet of twisted tin came skidding and tumbling at me, then spun away like an out-of-
control toboggan. Somewhere, there was the crash of glass—more windows were breaking. The metal garage door clanged against wrought-iron gates. It buckled like a prizefighter taking a punch to the midsection, shuddered, then straightened out, only to be banged and buckled again.
Outside, cars lined the sidewalks, parked nose to tail as they would have been on any ordinary day in the center of one of America's great cities, a city of jazz and Creole culture and old-fashioned houses with gingerbread and wrought-iron trim.
But on this day, New Orleans was not itself. The city and its people—at least those who had not fled—were tucked in, off the streets. The music had stopped. Clubs and restaurants were closed. Even the police were hunkered down. Water was rising in the downtown streets. Soon it would cover the tires of the parked cars; in some places, it would rise above their hoods. The wind and the rain owned the city. The storm had taken over.
That is what hurricanes do. They stop the world—your world, when they choose to come your way. They are among the most powerful, most mysterious forces on earth, and they have been terrorizing people along the shores of the Atlantic Ocean, the Caribbean Sea, and the Gulf of Mexico for centuries.
The Mayan Indians in Central America, whose civilization faded long before the first Europeans arrived in the fifteenth century, provided the word
Hurakan—probably the earliest version of the name we use today for these monstrous storms. Hurakan was the Mayan god of the big wind, and his image was chiseled into the walls of Mayan temples. In the Caribbean, the
Taino, Carib, and Arawak Indians cowered before an evil god they called
Hurican. Early explorers in the new world picked up the native names. In
Spanish, the word became huracan. In English it was hurricane.
Christopher Columbus got tangled up in hurricanes in the Caribbean in 1493
and 1494 and, according to his journal, was determined not to run into one again. "Nothing but the service of God and the extension of the monarchy would induce me to expose myself to such dangers," he wrote.
The ancients personalized the hurricane, believing that it was bearing down on them as punishment for something they had done—or not done. These days, there is more science and less superstition. Yet we humanize hurricanes with familiar names, and the big ones become folkloric characters,
their rampages woven into the histories of American towns and cities.
We may tell ourselves that hurricanes most certainly do not have minds of their own. But sometimes I've seriously wondered as I've driven through shattered neighborhoods and seen the way the wind has danced and teased and destroyed.
I grew up in south Florida and I've been through more than a dozen hurricanes. I survived the first when I was six years old. My mother and my younger brother and I had taken shelter with some friends in a dairy barn. It was built like just about every other big building in the region, with walls of stacked cement blocks and a roof of corrugated tin panels. It was warm and cozy—we had kerosene lanterns for light, and we stretched out on bales of hay. But the building was not as sturdy as we had thought. As the hurricane lashed the barn, it began to come apart, cement block by cement block. We all pushed to the front of the barn, where the walls were holding. We were terrified.
Abruptly, the wind fell off, and as the relatively calm eye of the hurricane passed over us, the grownups moved us all to a wooden farmhouse. When the wind came up again, the house creaked and the walls flexed. But the house stayed up. We all thought it was surprising that the farmhouse held up better than the barn. But that may have had more to do with the fickle nature of hurricanes than with the way the buildings had been constructed.
By the time Hurricane Andrew ripped through south Florida in 1992, I was a newspaper reporter working for The New York Times. I rode out the storm in
Coral Gables, a suburb of Miami. Afterward I steered my car around downed trees and power lines. Farther south, where Hurricane Andrew had struck with the greatest force, I drove past block after block of almost identical one-
story ranch-style houses. And I saw what I've seen many times. Some houses were in ruins, some had lost their roof. But others had barely been touched.
In condo towers, curtains billowed out of shattered windows on one floor, but just above and just below, there was no sign of damage. Mobile home parks had become fields of wreckage. But here and there stood an old model with little damage. Moving across Florida, the wind had nibbled here, passed up a house or two entirely, then delivered a few knockout punches and moved on.
Our culture is filled with references to these monstrous storms—in music,
movies, books, poetry, and paintings. Historians say an Atlantic hurricane inspired Shakespeare's The Tempest. In the Divine Comedy, Dante wrote of "the infernal hurricane," and Joseph Conrad wrote about the Pacific version of hurricanes in his book Typhoon. Artists like Winslow Homer and J.M.W.
Turner have captured the power and mystical qualities of hurricanes in paintings. A storm even shared some big scenes with Humphrey Bogart and
Edward G. Robinson in the classic movie Key Largo. More recently, Carl
Hiaasen, the author of Hoot and a slew of other Florida novels, used the chaos of Hurricane Andrew as the setting for a novel called Stormy Weather.
The hurricane season begins each year on June 1 and runs through the end of November. The life cycle of the hurricane has become a familiar part of the summer news for Americans: The discovery of a tropical disturbance far off in the Atlantic or perhaps somewhere in the Caribbean; a week or ten days of bulletins from the National Hurricane Center; preparations—from stocking up on flashlight batteries and bottled water to putting up storm shutters;
evacuation, the landing of the storm, palm trees flailing, buildings coming apart; then the aftermath: going home, picking up the pieces, rebuilding.
For most people who don't live on the Atlantic or Gulf Coast, hurricane watching is a spectator sport. They know there is little chance they will be involved. Still, they want to know what the hurricane is doing, whom it is hurting. It is like gawking at a pileup on the interstate. It raises the specter of death and the oh-that-could-have-been-me factor. For those in its path, when a hurricane comes blustering ashore, nothing else matters. And it is never forgotten.
Yet for all their fury, hurricanes begin life as fragile weather systems far from the towns and cities where they make their names. The first stirrings often come in the warm waters off the coast of West Africa.