Monday, December 31, 2007

Book Review: Come Hell Or High Water

Michael Eric Dyson’s Come Hell or High Water: Hurricane Katrina and the Color of Disaster is an ineloquent survey of the government’s response—or lack of it—to the hurricane that devastated the mostly poor residents of New Orleans. Dyson’s book examines the disaster at the intersection of class and race and how government neglect made a bad situation worse.

Nothing Dyson has written is new. New Orleans, a predominately black city, is one of the poorest, crime-ridden cities in the nation. Years of benign neglect by federal, state and local government have taken its toll. What Katrina did was to bring it to the fore. It was attention grabber when thousands of Orleanites, mostly black and mostly poor, were stranded waiting for anyone to help them.

Dyson places most of the blame on the federal government for not doing much before, during or after the hurricane. I would have to agree with Dyson that the federal government’s response—or lack of it—bordered on the criminal. But it’s unfair to place the whole blame on the federal government, in my opinion, when both the state and local government were equally sluggish in their respnse to Katrina.

And Dyson does not see the response to Katrina as an isolated incident, but as a problem with the system itself. Now this is where Dyson goes off the rails. He cites government cutbacks on welfare, housing and other social programs, starting in the 1980’s, after the election of Reagan, as the culprit. If this were so, then all blacks, regardless of geography would be worse off, right? But all social indicators say that blacks have made substantial advancements in many areas, leading many to enter not only the middle-class, but upper classes as well. Something other than institutionalized racism ails New Orleans.

I don’t think Come Hell or High Water is the best book on Katrina. For one thing, it’s badly written, which I found to be exasperating and tedious. Dyson is an academic and writes like one: though the book is straightforward, Dyson often veers toward the pedantic, and often gets caught in the thicket of acadamese. There is nothing intimate about the book; it’s all facts and figures, like a college textbook or delivering a paper at some symposium. You don’t hear the voices of Katrina victims aside from brief testimonials at the beginning of each chapter.