The Gulf Coast is in the news again these days, so it seemed appropriate to write about a new account of the last time disaster struck there. In Katrina’s Wake: The National Guard on the Gulf Coast, 2005 is a concise account of the Guard’s massive relief efforts. Even after five years, the numbers are hard to assimilate: more than $125,000,000,000 in property destroyed, almost 2,000 killed in Alabama, Florida, Mississippi, and Louisiana, and 80 percent of one of America’s great cities flooded. The first-person accounts of Guard personnel and the photos of flooding and rooftop evacuations by helicopter vividly conjure up those grim days.
In Katrina’s Wake was written by the National Guard Bureau’s Historical Services Division, which helps to set some of the events of that time in context. For example, I remember reading about what seemed to be a legalistic discussion as to whether the various state National Guard contingents sent to the Gulf ought to be federalized. The authors point out that keeping the various Guard units under the control of the state governors under the auspices of Title 32 allows the Guard to exercise police powers in an emergency, while the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878 prohibits the military and federalized National Guard troops from doing so. This key distinction was crucial when the New Orleans police force collapsed under the stress of disaster.
The book also highlights small moments: the flooding of the Louisiana Guard’s historic Jackson Barracks; the pathetic story of Snowball the dog and its impact on changing the “no pets” policy of the red Cross and other relief agencies; and the Ohio Guard contingent greeted by a local citizen who started unloading cans of juice and snacks from his truck to give to the Guardsmen. One Guardsman’s response: “We’re here to help you – not the other way around.”
In Katrina’s Wake is a brief but effective account of something that went right during the devastation of the Gulf Coast, when so much else went tragically wrong.