Tom Wooten’s Disaster Myopia: Too Close and Too Far Away

ACORN Rebuild New Orleans

9780807044636Rock Creek   Yes, I still read Katrina books, even as we are fast approaching the beginning of the 9th year since the storm on August 29, 2005.  Having written one myself, I respect the small fraternity of writers who have tried with varying success to put their arms around the disaster and somehow wrestle lessons from the tragedy.  Reading that Tom Wooten, a relatively recent Harvard graduate had written about flooding disasters in both India and New Orleans was especially interesting to me, so for my wor-cation, I brought both of them to river to read. 

            The first book written with Utpal Sandesara, No One Had a Tongue to Speak:  The Untold Story of One of History’s Deadliest Floods was a collection of both people’s stories and on-the-ground research about the killer tidal wave unleashed when a dam broke inundating the town of Morbi in the Indian state of Gujarat and killing several thousand easily on August 11, 1979.  Part of what made Untold Story both interesting and important was not simply the colorful cast of characters and their reflections thirty years later, but the fact that Sandesara and Wooten stumbled almost through pure luck into a trove of documents that actually shed light on investigations into the causes of the disaster.  Even thirty years after the fact and far removed from the events, Sandesara and Wooten in that book taught something important.

            Unfortunately, Wooten’s recent effort on Katrina, We Shall Not Be Moved:  Rebuilding Home in the Wake of Katrina is only stories, some from his own interviews, and based on few facts and a fair dose of the author’s own biases and some of his myopia.  Some of his biases I was inclined to share:  the belief in local work thrumping planning, the belief that locally controlled organizations are strongest in a community, and, I stand second to no one in my belief that community organization is critical after a disaster.  Yet, despite how much I wanted to embrace the book, Wooten made it impossible, because his refusal to do the real research, rather than repeat wholesale what he was told in order to paint his just so, pat pictures crippled the book and even the stories of his recovery heroes. 

            For example his stories of the fight for recovery in the Lower 9th Ward are so naive and distorted that I found myself simply shaking my head.  Mainly Wooten wanted to pick sides.  He takes shots at the Peoples’ Hurricane Recovery efforts, which were certainly flawed, but had a place, branding them as outside agenda folks, but turns a blind eye on Common Ground’s work, which was only different because it was better, though certainly as outside.  For some unfathomable and certainly unexplained reasons he takes sides with the efforts of Holy Cross to soak up the Lower 9th Ward recovery dollars rather than sharing them with the rest of the Lower 9th, and does so by gratuitously quoting categorical falsehoods which he certainly didn’t bother to corroborate, simply sourcing them as having come from interviews by others.  One papered over the bitter fight between Holy Cross nearer the River and the rest, and poorer, Lower 9th, as if it were no problem allowing a leader in the Holy Cross area to claim that everyone supported recovery for Holy Cross first, which was absurd.  He quotes Brad Pitt in an another interview, but would have had to do some minimal research to uncover the fact that actions by ACORN members forced “Make it Right” to build outside of Holy Cross and added ACORN leader and longtime L9 resident, Vanessa Gueringer, to the advisory board.  In one quote that is beneath contempt, he uses one of his so-called heroes to take a slap at ACORN that is a complete lie, and I suspect he knows it.

            Wooten believes in outside planners if they are from Harvard and connected to the Kennedy School where he had a fellowship to write this book.   Wooten’s theory of change is that popularly driven and led membership organizations are effective (I guess other than ACORN, though everyone but Wooten acknowledges ACORN’s critical role in the recovery of New Orleans), if they start community development corporations (CDCs) and perhaps charter schools to boot, including his uncritical praise for Edison Schools, which puts him in a small camp.  Of course he also believes in “burnout,” as an excuse for stopping working, so who knows what he really thinks.

            I loved some of the people, and I loved some of his stories.  He ended one chapter on Broadmoor with a quote from Lynda Ireland, a lifelong friend of three generations of my family, who is deeply missed.  I can hardly wait to tell my daughter so she can tell one of her best friends about the fact that her mother was quoted in the book.  I learned things about Lakeview, which I had not properly studied in the past, since the middle to upper-middle income communities have never been my turf.  I gained some respect for one of the Landrieu brothers and might give the Superdome’s Doug Thornton a second chance because his wife seems like good people. 

            But unfortunately when you hitch your wagons to stars without any research, reports, or footnotes to give it the velocity to reach the moon you want to see, a crash is inevitable.  Having loved the India book, I was left worrying that perhaps some of what seemed critical there might have been a mirage as well.  Wooten says he loves New Orleans and that now the city is home, and that’s a good thing, so I will hope over time he learns more about his new love and appreciates that like any good, long relationship, the love is stronger when the understanding gets deeper, not when it is all superficial and just another pretty or sad face.