I usually read books that are 250-300 pages; this non-fiction work is 352 pages.
Before I review this book, I need to provide some background information. St. Bernard Parish is east of New Orleans and borders the 9th Ward. It has two oil refineries, a major sugar refinery, and a fishing industry. Some of its earliest settlers came from the Canary Islands in the 1700s. There were many plantations during the 1800s. The Battle of New Orleans, the last one during the War of 1812, was actually fought in what is now Chalmette, St. Bernard Parish, not in New Orleans.
The residents of St. Bernard have a real sense of place, so much so, that very few ever left it; I believe their sense of place is even stronger than those in New Orleans. Because of that fact, and that their accents sounded similar to people in Brooklyn, we in New Orleans made fun of the Chalmations or people from Chalmette. However, since the Katrina, I haven't heard one Chalmation joke, which is good thing.
The Katrina-caused levee breaches flooded 80% of New Orleans (equivalent to 5 Manhattans), but it caused MORE damage in St. Bernard: 100% was indundated! The author, Michelle Mahl Buuck writes, "What happened was the worst case scenario for the Parish of St. Bernard. While waterways border St. Bernard on all four sides, leeves had broken on three of them. Hurricane protection leeves along the Mississippi Gulf Outlet (Mr. Go), the Industrial Canal, an portions of the federal Mississippi River Leeve belong Meraux were breached and had failed."
(Mr. Go is a man-made shortcut from the ports to the Gulf of Mexico. Residents had called for its closure for many years, but the Corpse of Engineers just didn't heed their warnings. The Industrial Canal breach first flooded the 9th Ward and then moved to St. Bernard. Storm surges in St. Bernard are estimated to have been 25 feet (7.62 meters). )
Buuck's purpose is to tell the Katrina story from the Fire Department's point of view. There are many photos included in the book, all contributed by the firemen.
I heard about this book from a One Book, One New Orleans event from last year. It was a panel discussion of "Why St. Bernard Matters." It also marked the first time that I had been in St. Bernard Parish since the Katrina.
One of the panelist told me, before the talk, that the Mounties arrived first in St. Bernard, and I was hoping that something was mentioned Buuck's book.
The first photo in this work is a satellite view of the five command centers of the parish: Domino Sugar Refinery (closest to New Orleans, in Arabi), Parish Government Complex, Civic Center, Chalmette High School, and St. Bernard High School (SBHS). If you are not familiar with the area, it's a great one to keep referring to.
Everyone knew there was going to be some flooding, but not to the extent that it happened. Firefighter Rodney Ourso recalls what he saw at SBHS: "There was a deer, struggling, swimming across the football field..You don't see that everyday."
During the height of the storm, the Domino Sugar Refinery, a sturdy, brick building built in early 1900s, began to move! "...the partition, cinderblocks were actually vibrating, moving back and forth by an estimated 4 or 5 inches." (10.2 to 12.7 centimeters)
All communications were lost, and each command station were on their own. A lot of improvisation happened to try to save and ration the little food and water there was, later rescue the living from rooftops using boats, repairing boats without power tools, cure the injured, provide some sort of toilet facilities, plan evacuations to the Mississippi River, etc. The firemen also had to keep focused on the job and not think about all that they had lost. They had no homes to go back to, no fire trucks, no fire stations, no nothing. In some ways, their trauma was worse than the 9/11 firemen. The ones who survived had homes and stations to return to.
The most vivid description for me was the efforts of the firemen in trying to prevent staph infections and foot rot. Some of their techniques reminded me of what Xavier and Elijah did (to keep their feet dry) during WWI in Three Day Road.
But, after battling heat, hunger, thirst, and trying to keep people calm for many days, help finally came: THE VANCOUVER URBAN SEARCH AND RESCUE TEAM! District Commander Buuck expressed what a lot of the St. Bernard residents felt. Although they were happy to be saved, "to have a foreign government send people down here and get here before our own government makes me feel that I'm not an American."
With the fourth anniversary of 8/29 quickly approaching, I felt that I needed to read this book. Although I didn't go to St. Bernard a lot, I knew that the people there had suffered as much as New Orleans residents because of the devastation caused by the Katrina breeches.
St. Bernard Parish is recovering at a faster pace than New Orleans. The Domino Refinery recently celebrated its centennial and it has been modernized. The deadline to repair or demolish homes has passed, and those who wish to still own the property must maintain them. (In New Orleans, some abandoned homes have pools with fetid water from 8/29!) The Civic Center now holds events like graduation; it flooded up the first balcony level. The schools are slowly rebuilding. New residents, such as Liz McCarthy, are helping in the rebuilding. (She won a CNN 2008 Hero Award.)
Many times, when I was reading this book, I felt as though it was fiction and other-worldly. I had to keep saying to myself, "It's real but incredible!"
The reality struck with Shane Lulei's answer to Buuck's question, "Is Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath the worst thing that you have been through?" Lulei's answer really shows his sense of duty. " We lost our whole community, and we don't know what's going to happen next. But my family and friends are all safe. As far as I went through, this is what I'm trained for; it's my job."