Monday, June 1, 2020

Garrett Peck's "A Decade of Disruption"

Garrett Peck is an author, public historian and tour guide in the nation's capital. He leads tours through The Smithsonian Associates, and his Temperance Tour of Prohibition-related sites has been featured on C-SPAN Book TV and the History Channel program "Ten Things You Didn't Know About" with punk rock legend Henry Rollins. He was featured on a two-hour documentary about Prohibition by the Smithsonian Channel.

Peck applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, A Decade of Disruption: America in the New Millennium, and reported the following:
From page 99:
Hurricane Katrina was the worst natural disaster that ever struck the United States. Eighty percent of New Orleans was underwater. Some 1,500 people drowned. Hundreds of thousands of people had lost their homes, and property damages were estimated at $75 billion. The 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York were contained to a few blocks at the south end of Manhattan, and the rescue efforts were largely led by local police and the fire department. Katrina, on the other hand, caused the wholesale evacuation of more than a million people and had devastated 90,000 square miles of the Gulf Coast in Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi. Most of the residents of New Orleans—a half-million people—lost everything. The U.S. had never experienced anything like this before.

The majority of New Orleanian evacuees fled west to Texas, about 150,000 of them settling in one city, Houston. Thousands of people ended up at the Houston Astrodome. People from throughout the Gulf region evacuated to other cities. Many of them settled in hotels, and months later, FEMA stopped paying their hotel bills.

Bush addressed the nation from Jackson Square two weeks after Katrina, saying that the United States would rebuild New Orleans. The square was flooded by generator-powered lights (power was still out in the city), but as soon as the president left, the power was cut off. Angry over the inept response, rap artist Kanye West remarked on television, “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.” Bush later wrote in his memoir, “But the suggestion that I am a racist because of the response to Katrina represented an all-time low. I told Laura [his wife] at the time that it was the worst moment of my presidency.”

Katrina exposed the deep fault lines of race and poverty that still undercut the United States. Many people had forgotten about the urban poor—people who were too poor even to own a car, people who barely squeezed by, paycheck to paycheck. Images on the nightly news and on the Internet showed flood victims taking shelter on the roofs of their homes—most of them poor blacks—and thousands of people crowding the inhumane conditions at the Convention Center and Louisiana Superdome.

New Orleans sat in stagnant, dirty water for six weeks before the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers finished draining the city. When it did, everything was covered in grey muck, a foul line on every house and building showed just how high the flood waters reached. Orange Xs from spray paint cans marked every house where rescuers had searched, indicating the date and if any bodies were found. The stagnant warm water created a huge mold problem.
The Page 99 Test works quite well for my book A Decade of Disruption. As you can probably tell from the topic, this is from a chapter called “Katrina,” which highlights the disastrous hurricane that drowned an American city in late August 2005, and the sluggish federal response that took the shine off the presidency of George W. Bush. Remember him saying to much derision, “You’re doing a heckuva job, Brownie”?

What I did here was capture the immediacy of the moment, while also putting it into the greater context of a decade in American history. We all lived through this disruptive time. I’m hoping the reader will recall how helpless we all felt when we saw helicopter footage of the drowned city with residents trapped on their roofs waiting for rescue, or the thousands trapped in inhumane conditions, almost all of them poor and black.

As I write this, we are witnessing another massive disruption: the COVID-19 pandemic. It feels like a historic parallel to Katrina, only exponentially worse. Many of the victims are those who are the most vulnerable in our society. The mortality rate is highest among people of color and the elderly. People of color are on the front lines of the pandemic, the “essential workers” in hospitals, nursing homes, grocery stores, and food delivery. They risk their lives to spare the rest of us, and many don’t have the luxury of working from home. In the last forty years, inequality has gotten much worse in our country.

The chapter “Katrina” was actually the first part of the book that I wrote. I visited the Big Easy in January 2008 for my fortieth birthday, and got to see how much of the city was still unopened, as it seemed like so many residents had permanently left. New Orleans is a great American city, and it would be a shame if it died. I’m relieved that the city has mostly recovered, but saddened that Mardi Gras in 2020 became a vector for mass coronavirus infection.
Learn more about the book and author at Garrett Peck's website.

--Marshal Zeringue