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Reporters who foresaw Katrina disaster doubtful N.O. can rebound

By Diane Jennings

The Dallas Morning News

On the first anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, books about the monumental disaster are pouring into stores. Scientists have weighed in, as well as historians. Now two Pulitzer Prize-winning reporters have, too, with "Path of Destruction: The Devastation of New Orleans and the Coming Age of Superstorms."

John McQuaid and Mark Schleifstein are uniquely qualified to write about the disaster and its aftermath because as reporters for the New Orleans Times-Picayune they warned of the risks facing the city in an acclaimed 2002 series titled "Washing Away." They also had the unpleasant experience of living through the devastation they predicted, and Schleifstein's home was destroyed by the storm.

As with many of the books written about Katrina, the chapters leading up to the actual disaster can be slow going. "Path of Destruction's" first chapter, for instance, opens with the startling sentence: "Eleven hundred years ago a small band of Indians had settled in the vast muddy delta ..."

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Surprisingly, their historic approach does cover some ground not detailed in other recent Katrina tomes, including a tidbit about the first hurricane reconnaissance flights out of Bryan, Texas, in 1943. Still, most readers probably will wish the authors reached 2005 sooner.

Like most catastrophe chronicles, the book picks up when told through the experiences of survivors. Those who read this and other books about Katrina quickly realize there are literally thousands of tales to be told, many of them heartbreaking.

McQuaid and Schleifstein do a credible job of explaining why response to the storm was so badly bungled. Though others have laid much of the blame on Mayor Ray Nagin, McQuaid and Schleifstein say relatively little about him and focus on the federal response. Only time will tell who is right.

Like other books written about Katrina, the authors try to peer into the future of coastal communities in general and New Orleans in particular. Sadly, like their fellow writers, they are not optimistic.

A storm is an act of nature, they write, not just of Mother Nature but of human nature. And they seem doubtful that New Orleans, with limited economic resources, a scattered population and little political clout, has the ability to do what needs to be done, the way the Dutch did after a 1953 flood devastated the Netherlands.

If another storm hits the Crescent City before such changes can be made, "this once-grand city of spice and jazz and good times and hard work would vanish beneath the sea," they write, "The first but possibly not the last American Atlantis."

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"Path of Destruction: The Devastation of New Orleans and the Coming Age of Superstorms" by John McQuaid and Mark Schleifstein; Little, Brown and Co. ($25.99)

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