Today’s New York Times Book Review cover piece by Timothy Egan is on Dave Eggers’s new book Zeitoun, a nonfiction narrative of one family’s experience of Hurricane Katrina. So far so good. I haven’t read it yet, but the Eggers book sounds like a fantastic addition to the corpus of Katrina books.
But the review contains a couple of errors. It says the storm hit on Sunday, Aug. 28; actually it made landfall the morning of Aug. 29. Maybe this isn’t a mistake as such – the wind was already blowing pretty hard on Aug. 28. But the second error is significant: “Day 2, the world changes. Zeitoun wakes to a sea of water, after the levees have been overtopped. He’s neck-deep in a city of a thousand acts of desperation.”
As any New Orleans resident will tell you, the levees around central New Orleans, including the area where Zeitoun lives, were never overtopped. Rather, badly-designed floodwalls collapsed and breached in several places before Katrina’s storm surge got anywhere near the top. There was some overtopping in more-exposed areas to the east, but the vast majority of the flooding was caused by those breaches – in other words, human error by the Corps of Engineers.
This is not a minor semantic point. The responsibility for most of the damage to New Orleans and the awful events immediately following the storm lies with the Corps – that is, the federal government. This is not in dispute; three distinct investigations have laid the blame on the Corps, including the Corps’s own study. In any assessment of what happened – scientific, political, historical – this is crux of what went wrong, a terrible failure American know-how whose broader implications are alarming and remain mostly unexamined. New Orleanians and Louisiana politicians and media types do their best to remind the powers that be of these scandalous facts. Harry Shearer has been tireless in making this point. To his credit, Brad Pitt made it on Bill Maher’s HBO show Friday night.
But for some reason, this never quite sunk in with many in the media world, or for that matter the nation as a whole. The shorthand of “New Orleans levees overtopped” – with its underlying associations of “natural disaster swamps city below sea level – what the heck are those people doing living down there?” seems to have been dropped into the review without much thought. I’m assuming that Egan – whose work I like and respect – made the error and not Eggers; but even if it was Eggers, it was up to Egan and his editors not to repeat it in the NYT.