Douglas Brinkley: Historian praises N.O. 'Cajun navy,' raps Nagin, Bush

Historians in the News




Historian Douglas Brinkley, who is writing a book about Hurricane Katrina, lived through the deadly storm and has been studying it ever since.

Among the unsung heroes, Brinkley said, are those anonymous boat operators -- dubbed the Cajun navy -- who navigated their private fishing boats and other vessels through flooded New Orleans to lend a hand after the hurricane hit.

The sight of it all made him rethink his view of some laborers.

"I saw guys chain-smoking cigarettes ... with tattoos out there saving dozens of lives," he said in a recent address to the annual meeting of the Council for a Better Louisiana.

Brinkley said official rescuers stood to the side, in some cases unable to navigate the streets-turned-waterways that demanded the navigational savvy of natives to the area.

"The Cajun navy knows Louisiana," he said.

Brinkley, whose book is set for publication in April, is not so charitable to politicians.

He said getting panicked residents of New Orleans out of harm's way was clearly the job of the city, which is headed by Mayor Ray Nagin.

"The city of New Orleans was not properly prepared for a hurricane," Brinkley said.

Better use of city buses, school buses, and even Amtrak trains before the storm hit would have eased the crush at the Superdome, which turned violent and chaotic when thousands poured in for days.

"Those buses should have been used to ferry people out of town," he said. "It is the city's responsibility for the evacuations."

Brinkley also said President Bush made key missteps in overseeing the federal response to Hurricane Katrina, including what he sees as a lack of leadership now to rebuild New Orleans.

He said Ronald Reagan, John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Harry Truman and others "would be on the stump saying we have to save one of the great cities of the world.

"This is not happening," Brinkley said. "Right now no one wants to take that on, no national leaders. The money and the will power are not there right now."...



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