Douglas Brinkley: Aided Victims Of Katrina, Gathered Material For New Book

Historians in the News

It's one thing to write about history as Douglas Brinkley has done for more than two decades, often to much fanfare and acclaim. It's quite another to be swept up with your young family by its fast-moving and unpredictable currents.

With Hurricane Katrina bearing down on the Gulf Coast, the 44-year-old Tulane University professor decided to stay in New Orleans not to bear witness to a national tragedy -- although that's precisely what happened -- but simply to avoid getting stuck in bumper-to-bumper evacuation traffic.

Along with his wife and their two children, then both younger than 2, Brinkley's plan was to "evacuate vertically" into a riverfront high-rise -- designed by his father-in-law -- that was built to withstand a Category 5 hurricane. And there from the 15th floor, the telegenic historian, a popular guest on cable news programs, watched as his adopted home became the news story of the year.
The stranded "would be panicking and suddenly the lightbulb would go on," recalled Brinkley, a prolific author of popular works on such diverse subjects as John Kerry, Rosa Parks and Henry Ford. "They were like, 'Get me out of here, get me out of here.... [Hey, are you] Sean Penn?' I think it actually reassured them."

It all sounds like a movie, but actually it's going to be a book.

Analysis and oral histories

It's called "The Great Deluge" and Brinkley expects it to hit the bookstands around Aug. 29, 2006, the one-year anniversary of Katrina's hitting New Orleans. Published by William Morrow, the book will be filled with hundreds of oral histories as well as a critical analysis of the local, state and federal response to the crisis.

"There's going to be a cottage industry of books about Katrina almost like a Gettysburg or an Antietam," said Brinkley, who put aside a project on Theodore Roosevelt and conservation to focus exclusively on the upcoming book. "It will be reinterpreted in books for decades, even centuries.

"There's no way it's going to be definitive," added Brinkley about his upcoming book. "But hopefully it might be an opening salvo in the scholarship."

[Editor's Note: This is a short excerpt from a much longer piece. Please see the LA Times for more.]

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