Today while toodling about the country roads in our van I listened to NPR, so I got to hear Terri Gross of Fresh Air interview David Brinkley (historian, professor at Tulane in New Orleans), who is already writing a book about NOLA and Katrina. He’s also starting an oral history project to document the events following Hurricane Katrina.
Because we write this blog in part for our high school age children who may not realize who Brinkley is, I provide the following biographical information. Brinkley is also the author of Tour of Duty, John Kerry and the Viet Nam War; biographer of the deranged and now deceased reporter Hunter Thompson, and a member of what the Aspen Daily News called the ‘makeshift Democratic election headquarters’ at Hunter Thompson’s house on election night and mentioned in the Aspen Daily News report of November 4, 2004, which report says, “Actor Sean Penn, presidential historian Douglas Brinkley, Kerry press secretary David Wade and others checked in with Thompson “ for his views on how the election was going (I think they mean something other than presidential historian).
Terry Gross asked Brinkley about his Katrina Oral History Project, and he said:
“I’m very determined to make sure we don’t forget what happened and this is not just a catastrophe, it’s a deluge, try to get to the bottom of it, the media has been very good and is generating great stories, but I want to do my own oral history project…”
She asks him to tell her more about it, and he says (I transcribed this from the audio file at NPR as carefully as I could):
“The first thing is to communicate which is what didn’t happen. I was in New Orleans for Katrina and then got out of town afterwards and I came back and I was constantly encountering people on dry land, mainly FEMA people, trying to stop rescue attempts of people that were desperate for help, and that, um, startled me that this could happen in our country. uh I understand politics and I understand that sometimes we can debate something like the war in Iraq, but this seemed so basic, ‘people are flooded they are screaming for help- get a boat and go get them-’ yet people that had the means to save a lot of people weren’t doing it, and I recognized at that point something Dwight Eisenhower had said um when he was general after WW 2 and encountered the concentration camps in Europe and he said immediately I wanted it completely documented by photographs, film, interviews, everything because uh
If our government can turn their backs at these people in need they will try to whitewash what happened and make it seem like it was uh God’s uh storm and there was not that much that could have been done, and I think it’s uh , uh, the story’s much bigger than that.”
You probably want to read that again slowly and carefully. He says he saw FEMA people wave off rescuers from people who were screaming for help. He says he was immediately reminded by concentration camps in WW2 (Nazi references so soon?), and that our government turned its back on people in need, and he’s got an obligatory backhanded swipe at religion.
Terry Gross asks him about this incredible accusation, ‘You say that you saw FEMA representatives preventing people from rescuing people?
Yes. Um First off they would stop trucks in Baton rouge that they didn’t have on their clip board um and if you were a private sector truck trying to bring in supplies you were just completely derailed. Secondly, in New Orleans at St. Charles near Manalli’s (he stutters on this and I don’t know the restaurant) restaurant um there were groups of federal officials who didn’t want to get a wrinkle in their, their clothes who stood by when virtually people including schizophrenics, people with diabetes, elderly people with arthritis, uh were being having to be saved by common citizens in fishing boats who would bring them to dry land. we’d put them on the shore and then the government officials would just let them sit there and they‘d tell you well we’re gonna get them to a hospital. I didn’t trust them bec- uh, and so I would circle back and four or five hours later these people that were in desperate pain with nothing still sitting on a street curb after they were pulled out the water- nobody there to help them yet they are surrounded by a sea of government officials. You know, part of it seemed to be a resentment that these people had stayed in New Orleans. The feeling was you had a warning to get out, why did 100,000 of you stay?
Okay, so he’s a mind reader, too. FEMA deliberately left wet, sick, suffering people sitting on shore because they didn’t want their suits wrinkled and they didn’t want to take these people to the hospital anyway because it was all their own fault. Brinkley knows this for a fact.
Terry does not point out that he has not even come close to supporting his original accusation of having seen FEMA officials actively preventing these people in boats from rescuing people in the water. She just asks him why he decided to become a freelance rescuer.
He says he got his family out and got them set up in Houston and watching the news coverage made him feel guilty, because it was his city and he needed to do something, So he went to go check on some friends and relatives of friends. A friend wanted him to check on the friend’s mother, who had altzheimers and was in an apartment. I hope the friend had a good reason for leaving a mother with altzheimer’s alone in an apartment during a hurricane while the friend escaped.
Then he says he met a preacher who told him some children were trapped, so he got a boat and he rescued peopled. We do not ever find out about these children. He tells us instead that the people he saw were generally people who were left behind because they “were too ill to go, living on pension checks, couldn’t leave, were elderly people living by themselves and people with mental disabilities who weren’t really loved by anybody, people who had drug addiction, and people with AIDS- the downtrodden, people we don’t see a lot or hear a lot, were there in mass, hadn’t left and were frightened to death, it would have been a normal reaction for anybody who was there on the spot” to save them (except FEMA people, I guess) .
It’s interesting that his motivation to go was, according to him, this urgent need to go down and do something, and this need came over him as he watched the coverage on television. Tim Blair quotes the New York Daily News as saying that Brinkley was “assigned by Rolling Stone editor Will Dana to write about New Orleans’ recovery.” So he took the time to get in touch with Rolling Stone before he left to get this trip paid for, and he already has a home for his first article on it.
Brinkley also says “I’m very disappointed in my country… I love America… I am a great patriot… but I feel that our government, particularly our federal government, but also our state government in LA let us down”
I wanted to know more, so I did some internet searching.
At the Bookblog we learn that: Bestselling author and historian David Brinkley has inked the first major Hurricane Katrina book deal.
Douglas Brinkley is planning “an analysis and narrative of the ongoing crisis in New Orleans in historical context,” according to his publisher William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins. The book, tentatively titled The Great Deluge, is scheduled to be published by Morrow early next year.
Financial terms were not disclosed Monday and there was no immediate word on whether any proceeds would be donated to charity. “Hurricane Katrina is without question the worst natural disaster in American history,” Brinkley, a professor at the New Orleans-based Tulane University who was in town when the storm hit, said in a statement. “With the death toll rising and toxic sludge draining into Lake Pontchartrain, it’s imperative that we learn what went wrong.”
According to the NPR website the proceeds will be donated to “the Historic New Orleans Collection, a museum and research center in the city’s French Quarter.”
Elsewhere (at Fratpack) Douglas Brinkley has claimed he personally saw Sean Penn rescue forty people in his waterlogged boat, saying he saw Sean up to his waste in ‘toxic sludge,’ and Brinkley does show up in the photograph of Penn bailing water with a red plastic cup. So is this boat rescue adventure Brinkley talks about the same trip? Because if so, Sean’s account differs slightly from Brinkley’s: “Penn said he spent about nine hours in the water. In that time, he told Larry King, he saw only three military-helmed boats.
“Most of the National Guard presence was in the air,” Penn said. “They were doing a great job, those that were there. But there weren’t enough there.” ”
Sean has made no claims about personally witnessing FEMA fend off would be rescuers, keeping them and their boats from screaming victims.
Brinkley has lately inked a development deal to become the featured star of a new, independently produced reality show set in New Orleans. Its creators haven’t yet settled on a name for the program, but Brinkley will play the role of “director” at the “Theodore Roosevelt Center for American Civilization”–described in the show’s promotional materials as a division of “Tulane University.”
The art of writing only gets one so far. To really succeed in the field, one needs to be very good at self-promotion. Just saying.