The Failure of the Levees

What Was Hurricane Katrina? was published in 2015, close to the tenth anniversary of that historic horror. While I’m proud of this book for middle-grade students and it’s sold pretty well over the years, it did not turn out to be what I had originally proposed, and that has always bothered me a little. So, I was delighted to see that someone finally saw my original vision for the book when I discovered this very recent review on Goodreads:

What Was Hurricane Katrina? was originally part of a book series I was shopping around called Disaster Detective. Here is part of my pitch:

“What caused the Tacoma Narrows Bridge to buck and twist in the wind and collapse into the icy waters below? Why did a massive flood wall system fail, causing horrendous devastation to the city of New Orleans? What was behind the Space Shuttle Challenger’s tragic explosion? These books will explore many of the engineering and construction mistakes, some controversial, that have been blamed for some of the world’s worst disasters. What went wrong? What did we learn?”

What Was Hurricane Katrina? was originally called The Failure of the Levees. Here’s the pitch for that particular title in the proposed 10-book series:

“Hurricane Katrina had moved on, north of the city of New Orleans, yet Lake Ponchartrain continued to pour through a two-block long break in the main levee. Since much of the city was built 10 feet below sea level, the rising tide was boss and the levees were failing. The Corps of Engineers blamed the lack of government funds to try to shore up the levees and build more pumping stations, but according to many engineering experts, even the more modern levees had multiple weak spots in their construction and some even had termite damage. It was a recently rebuilt levee along the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet ship channel that broke in more than 20 places when the storm surge pounded it.”

To note, all of the disasters in my series proposal had some common threads: they were human-caused, money-motivated, and preventable. Hurricane Katrina would have left New Orleans damaged and wet but with far fewer deaths and loss of property, had it not been for the enormous bumblef**k of a levee system that pretty much everyone knew was lame at best. For example, the pumping stations that were installed to pump out flood waters relied on electricity, which is usually the first thing to go in a storm, right? But these brilliant, underfunded engineers had it covered: they provided generators to run the pumping stations. But where did the they put the generators? In the basement.

Anyway, one of the many publishers I peddled this idea to passed it along to the folks who published the What Was/Who Was series. Their editor wanted to publish the one about the levees, but wanted it to be about Katrina overall. Deal! I wrote a brand new detailed outline and chapter breakdown to fit their program. After many edits, the book focused pretty much on New Orleans and the human disaster, but included the engineering issues as well. The research was beyond heart-breaking….and I’ll just leave that there without going into a rage about racism and poverty in this country.

I’m still very proud of this title (even though my Republican aunt (RIP) refused to read it), and glad it continues to do well and get positive reviews from readers. But this particular review about it being assigned in an engineering class made me smile, because that’s what it was originally all about! Thousands of people should not have died and many thousands made homeless had we just had the infrastructure in place, had we just done more to deal with the global climate disaster, had we just cared more about the planet than we did the bottom line.

Illustration by John Hinderliter

You can purchase the book at your favorite bookseller. You can also watch the book trailer and cry, well, I know I still do and I’ve watched it often. It must be the music. Go see it here.

Thanks for reading! I’m having a hard time deciphering WordPress’s new platform for categories and all that, so I just hit the PUBLISH button and called it good.

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