March 3, 2016
Drowned City: Hurricane Katrina and New Orleans written and illustrated by Don Brown
Hurricane Katrina and New Orleans
written and illustrated by Don Brown
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
When Hurricane Katrina storms across Florida, it is only a Category 1 hurricane. This is the smallest, least destructive level but it still kills 6 people, dumps 18 inches of water and leave 1/2 million without electricity. If that was a small storm, what could a bit one do? People found out when it reached New Orleans.
Crossing the Gulf of Mexico, the storm pulled in more and more water. By the time it reached New Orleans, it was a Category 5 complete with 155 mph winds. These winds drive a wave of water ahead of the storm. When Katrina strikes New Orleans it will lead with a wave that is 25 feet higher than normal.
There are 1.2 million people living in the area. Miraculously, 80% of them manage to flee. These are the ones who have cars or no one sick in the hospital.
But this is when the true disaster begins. Trains must be evacuated as well and they offer to fill all five with those who have no cars. The major says no thank you. The city also owns 360 buses but they aren’t used to remove people either. As the water approaches, waves roll over the tops of levees. The cities pumps could remove this water but when levee walls collapse nothing can be done.
Don Brown goes on to describe the many ways that people die — trapped in attics filling with water, washed away or, later, from lack of food and water. He describes the lack of response from the government and the lack of coordination. But he also describes the many people who fight through to help and the spirit of those who are determined to rebuild because, in spite of everything, New Orleans is their home.
I’ve been trying to find nonfiction graphic novels but I have to admit that I initially passed this one over. I couldn’t image reading this particular story in graphic color. And I have to say, it can be a tough one to read but Brown uses muted, muddy, flood-appropriate tones. Somehow that also mutes the horror. The dead are sometimes shown but not their faces. I know that sounds like a trivial detail but somehow it makes it less extreme (and is also an old war photographers trick).
The book is listed for readers 7th grade and older. In truth, I’d be tempted to say 9th grade but a lot is going to depend on the young reader. Many of them will be drawn to the story for the truth and the realism, a reality that is often denied to them by adults who feel that they just can’t handle it.
Would I give this book to my son? Yes. Would I have given it to him in 7th grade. Yes, but we would have read it together.
Brown’s telling doesn’t gloss over the ugly realities either of death itself or the government failures that led to that death toll. It isn’t a pretty story but it is one that needs to be told, if for no other reason so that we can avoid making the same mistakes twice.